At outdoors show, muskrats still rouse cheers

March 02, 2009|By David Zucchino | David Zucchino,Los Angeles Times

Golden Hill -How do you skin a muskrat? Let's ask an expert.

Here's Dakota Abbott, 17, the only woman to win a muskrat-skinning contest and the Miss Outdoors Pageant. Her father and uncle, both former muskrat-skinning champs, taught her to skin her first muskrat when she was 14.

"The first cut is crucial. You have to pinch the fur at the hind legs and cut straight into that meaty area there. You slice down and out real quick and just push your rat inside out," Abbott was saying Friday night as she watched three male cousins skin muskrats.

Abbott wore a silver crown and a sequined evening gown, for she was moments away from surrendering her Miss Outdoors 2008 title to the new queen crowned at Friday night's pageant. On Saturday night, Abbott wore jeans and a T-shirt to slice up two furry muskrats with a Queen Cutlery No. 11 folding knife, plunging her manicured fingers into the creatures' glistening carcasses.

Her swift but messy skinning won the women's junior championship trophy, a $100 check and a set of muskrat traps - though Abbott was the category's only contestant. She finished her final muskrat with a flourish, raising her knife in triumph.

"You want a real sharp knife and a good grip," she said.

Yesterday, Eastern Shore waterman Ronnie Robbins skinned five muskrats in 14.25 seconds with a paring knife to take first prize in the Men's International World Championship Muskrat Skinning competition.

"No secret technique," said Robbins, 50, as he hoisted his trophy. "I just let those other boys mess up."

Robbins' win, just ahead of four of Abbott's cousins and uncles, was the climax of the 64th Annual National Outdoor Show. There was muskrat on the floor and hoots and whistles from hundreds of spectators as skinners in the men's, women's and beginner's contests claimed their trophies.

The show celebrates an enduring way of life in Dorchester County. In this low, wet corner of the Eastern Shore, at the edge of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the main pursuits are hunting, fishing, crabbing - and trapping, skinning and selling muskrats.

"People have been trapping and skinning muskrats forever around here," said Buddy Oberender, the show's co-chairman, who stopped skinning muskrats when he realized he was allergic to their fur. "They say the first settlers learned it from the Indians."

Oberender is a waterman - he fishes for menhaden, bass, flounder, croaker, catfish - but he's devoted to muskrats. He beamed as his son Ryan, 11, won the male beginner's skinning title.

Few here make a living trapping and selling muskrats anymore. It's mostly a sideline, what with the price of muskrat meat at $2.50 to $5 an animal - down from $10 to $11 a quarter-century ago. Muskrat pelts, 90 percent of which are exported to make coats and hats, are down to $2 to $4 a hide from $7 to $9 two decades ago.

Muskrat meat is a staple of volunteer fire hall fundraisers and backyard feasts here. (Tastes like chicken!) At the show's muskrat-cooking contest Saturday, the winners were muskrat salsa with cheese and muskrat with onions. An also-ran: muskrat dumplings.

The show, first held in 1938, is staged in a steamy high school gym. In tribute to the humble muskrat, the event features muskrat T-shirts and a muskrat race. (Children do the running, fetching a dead muskrat from a nest and scampering to the finish line.)

For the uninitiated, a muskrat is, if not exactly a rat, at least a rat cousin. Formally known as Ondatra zibethica, the muskrat is a semiaquatic rodent, aka water rat.

Muskrats are brown, gray or black, about a foot long, with dense waterproof fur, short legs and big feet. They love lakes, swamps and marshes, which makes the soggy Eastern Shore a sort of muskrat paradise. They are prolific breeders and eaters, gulping down one-third of their body weight each day in vegetation and grains.

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