Marylander wins world muskrat-skinning crown


GOLDEN HILL -- It took two minutes and 25 bloody carcasses to enthrone Ted Abbott as king -- king of the muskrat skinners.

This time it wasn't Wylie Abbott Sr. or Wiley Abbott Jr., who have been handing the big trophy back and forth since 1977. It was their cousin, Ted Abbott, a weekend trapper who claimed the honor by skinning five muskrats in a minute, 25 1/2 seconds at the 46th annual National Outdoor Show in Golden Hill on Saturday night.

Ted Abbott, a home-renovation contractor from Fishing Creek in Dorchester County, had just come off a 10-year hiatus from the skinning wars.

"I just like to get up there with the boys and fill in a slot," said Mr. Abbott, a big, bearded 51-year-old man who has been skinning for 40 years and has won the championship four times before. His wife, Bonnie, retained her title Saturday night as the Women's World Champion skinner.

The Abbotts take their dominance of the muskrat skinning world casually. Vernon G. Boog, a contest official, still talks about the time Wylie Sr. had a bit much to drink and dozed off while waiting for the skinning finals to start. Minutes before show time, Mr. Boog woke Wylie Sr., who roused himself, took his place on stage and won the title.

"You get a little jittery on the start," said Mr. Abbott, who points out that he doesn't drink much any more. "But once you get moving, you're OK."

Mr. Abbott Sr., 51, of Elliott Island, finished second this year. His 29-year old son, Wylie Jr., finished third, and his 25-year-old son, Robert, finished fourth.

Yes, there was a non-Abbott up on the stage at South Dorchester School -- Ronnie Robbins of Fishing Creek. He finished fifth. He joked that he is thinking of changing his name to Robbins-Abbott.

Maybe that would help him borrow a little magic from a tradition rooted deep in the bottomlands of Dorchester County.

The Abbotts have been working the bays and marshlands around the Nanticoke, Blackwater and Transquaking rivers for as long as any of them can recall. Fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, great-great-grandfathers -- watermen all. They mingled with the Nanticoke Indians somewhere along the line, said Ted Abbott, and American Indian blood courses through Abbott veins.

Ted Abbott's grandfather, George North, is listed in the Outdoor Show program as the first World Muskrat Skinning Champion. That was for the 1938 competition, when the skill had not yet been honed to lightning speed by Ted's brother, 62-year-old Elihu Abbott of Robbins.

Before Elihu Abbott started tinkering with the method in the early a skinner would need eight or 10 cuts per rat and take three or four minutes to skin five. Mr. Abbott got it down to three, sometimes two on better days. He won the championship eight times between 1953 and 1963.

"I studied it in the summertime," said Mr. Abbott, seated in the smoky lounge at South Dorchester School as he waited for the contest to start. Both the floor of the crowded room and the snacking table were littered with corpses of muskrats and raccoons. "One time, I had a two-cut on a muskrat. The most tedious part of skinning a muskrat is around the head. But if you practice it thousands and thousands of times you can do it with one cut across the eyes."

Most skinners in competition use a three-cut method now. You figure less than 15 seconds per rat when you're on a roll. You cut the rat across the rear end, pull the skin back toward the head, push the carcass away from the skin with your fist and pull the animal inside-out. Two cuts at the eyes free the pelt from the carcass.

Carcass tossed aside. Next rat.

"Where most of it comes in is in the strength in your hands," said Wylie Abbott Sr., who warmed up for the contest three weeks ago at the Delmarva Trade Company, a fur-trading house in Vienna, by skinning 308 muskrats in an hour, 45 minutes with Wylie Jr.

The competition has become a monument to a dying art, as low pelt prices have driven trappers from the trade. Vernon G. Boog, who owns the Delmarva Trade Company, said the abundance of ranch-raised mink has killed the muskrat market. Four years ago, Mr. Boog said, brown pelts were selling for $5, blacks for $8.

Now the best a trapper can get is about $1.10 for a stretched pelt.

But the price of the meats has risen to the $2.50-$3.50 range. Muskrat is an Eastern Shore delicacy. When the fur was more valuable, the meats sold for only about 75 cents apiece, Mr. Boog said.

"Long as you have these animal activists and this synthetic stuff, you'll never see the fur trade come back," said Ted Abbott.

Neither hide nor hair of an animal activist has ever been seen at the National Outdoor Show. Two reasons for that, said Elihu Abbott, counting them off on fingers gnarled by arthritis and thousands of muskrat skinnings: "Fear and good common sense."

Arthur Hirsch is a reporter for the Anne Arundel County Sun, a suburban edition of The Baltimore Sun.

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