GOLDEN HILL— The first time Buzz Spicer ate muskrat, he was about 4 years old, sitting in his mama’s car. She had bought a platter of muskrat from a church fundraiser — enough to feed the whole family— and left it the backseat with little Buzz. When she wasn’t looking, he ate every last bit.
Spicer, now 24, relished a stewed muskrat as he recounted this tale Saturday at the 76th annual National Outdoor Show World Championship Muskrat Skinning Contest. “I would eat muskrat every day, if I could,” said Spicer, leaving only a pile of tiny bones in the paper tray.
Hundreds had converged at an elementary school in the middle of marsh country on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to celebrate the creatures, which resemble fur-covered footballs with buckteeth and long blade-like tails. Former beauty pageant winners wore sashes adorned with muskrat fur, volunteers stirred pots of stewed muskrat and competitors sharpened their knives, preparing to skin a muskrat in about 20 seconds.
To reach muskrat county, you head east on Route 50 to Cambridge, then turn southwest, passing the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and winding through the marshes of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. It’s here, beneath the scrubby pines and amid tall, dun-colored grasses that muskrats, a species native to wetlands throughout the continental United States, make their homes. The marshlands are full of what locals describe as “boot-sucking mud” and act as a natural filter, cleaning the water before it reaches the nearby Chesapeake Bay.
The Native American people who first inhabited this land ate muskrats, sewed their pelts into blankets and fashioned fish hooks and sewing needles from their bones, said Chief Donna Wolf Mother Abbott of the Nause-Waiwash Band of Indians, as she operated a booth at the festival. Like most people here, the story of Abbott’s family is entwined with the tradition of muskrat hunting. Her father, uncles and grandfather all caught the creatures. More than half the winners in the men’s competition over the past three-quarters of a century have the surname “Abbott.”
“I thought I was getting away with something when they’d let me stay home from school to catch muskrats,” Chief Abbott recalled.
Muskrats are not actually rats (they belong to another branch of the rodent family), but they are musky, communicating through pungent trails of scent. They primarily eat plants, but supplement their diet with insects, frogs and shellfish, according to the Chesapeake Bay Project. They live in family groups, breed prolifically and build structures similar to a beaver’s dam. They are an important food source for birds of prey. Muskrat hunting season in Southern Maryland runs from Jan. 1 to March 15, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and there is no limit on the number of muskrats one can catch with traps, which are designed to assure a quick death.
The muskrat skinning competition began in the late 1930s, said Cindy Paul, a member of the committee that organizes the festival. “A bunch of guys got together to compete for bragging rights,” she said. Eventually, the event grew more formal and embraced more aspects of Eastern Shore life. Participants now compete in oyster shucking, trap setting, raccoon skinning, log sawing and duck, goose and turkey calling.
The only time the show was canceled was during World War II and over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, explained Paul, her words nearly drowned out by men practicing duck calls.
This year’s festival kicked off Friday evening with the Miss Outdoors Pageant. In the first decades of the festival, young women modeled muskrat-fur bathing suits, but these days they take part in a talent show and and wear evening dresses to compete for a golden crown and college scholarships.
Saturday’s events included pageants for children, a venison cooking competition and a photo booth in which visitors posed with a muskrat fur hand puppet of sorts. A handmade muskrat fur teddy bear sold for $2,000 at an auction. The competition grew intense in the evening, as folks wielded their knives in the beginner, junior divisions and old-timer divisions, as well as for the top prizes — the women’s and men’s world championship muskrat skinning.
Stephanie Elzey Windsor, 36, explained how the muskrat trapping traditions are woven into her family’s history. She wore the sash she won in the 2004 competition, which was the subject of a PBS documentary called “Muskrat Lovely.” Around her neck hung small pendants of a muskrat and muskrat trap, as well as a blue stone crafted from the ashes of her father, Rick Elzey, Sr., who died in 2021.
Windsor also wore a vest made from the silky soft pelts her father caught in his last muskrat season. “The last year my dad went trapping, he got the furs sent off and had this made for me,” she said. “I didn’t even know until after he died.”
On the main stage, Mark Flowers, 66, demonstrated how to skin a muskrat. “You drop down and you shove the knife right in,” he said, making a few quick cuts and then peeling the pelt off like a sock. “You never let go of the knife.”
“My mom taught me how to skin when I was 7,” said Flowers, gesturing to 95-year-old Nellie Flowers, beaming at her son from the audience. A few rooms away, a display included a 1938 clipping from The Baltimore Sun that showed Nellie as a girl skinning a muskrat at one of the first competitions.
The family tradition continues. Flowers’ son Dusty won the men’s competition in 2020, and his wife Dakota — born into the muskrat-loving Abbott family — has dominated the women’s competition for years. She also is a former winner of the Miss Outdoors pageant. On Saturday evening, Dakota held onto her title, but her cousin, T.J. Abbott, edged out Dusty in the men’s championship.
Yet participants at this weekend’s festival rued the fact that the market for muskrat seems to be drying up. “We couldn’t even sell our hides last year. Nobody wanted them,” said Mark Flowers. “It’s a dying thing. Nobody does it no more.”
Flowers also expressed some sadness that nutria, an invasive aquatic mammal that had moved into the Chesapeake Bay region, had been eradicated. “Nutria was awesome because we had something to do in winter,” he said, explaining that a U.S. Department of Agriculture program would pay folks a dollar for each nutria they caught.
Yet, as hundreds of people wound through the South Dorchester K-8 School on Saturday, the passion for muskrat— and all things unique to the Eastern Shore— seemed far from over. Vendors sold duck calls, wreaths made of oyster shells, earrings made from clamshells, lamps made from seashells, oyster shells with paintings of crabs and crab shells with paintings of ducks.
A silent auction table included a poster that said, “It’s an Eastern Shore thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
Visitors included pageant winners from the Louisiana Fur & Wildlife Festival, held each winter in Cameron Parish, on the southwest edge of the state. Since the 1950s, people from similarly swampy Cameron have been traveling to Dorchester for the muskrat festival. “It’s the same kind of place,” said Paul, describing a shared a love of marsh creatures and down-home festivities. The Cameron Parish crew threw Mardi Gras style beads into Saturday evening’s crowd. The winners of this year’s muskrat titles will visit Louisiana next January, for what is billed as “The Oldest and Coldest Festival in Louisiana.”
For some visitors, the real draw of the Maryland festival was the stewed muskrats served alongside more familiar Maryland delicacies such as crab cakes, soft-shell crabs and oyster fritters.
Most people season muskrat with salt, pepper and lots of sage, explained Buzz Spicer. He grew up right by the school, part of a long line of farmers and watermen, but now works in construction. His grandmother parboils muskrat, then stews it with flour and onions to make a gravy, he said. “It’s an acquired taste,” said Spicer, who won this year’s muskrat trap-setting competition.
Indeed, the flavor of the muskrat is rich and gamy, somewhat like oily goat with a hint of fish sauce. Most people at the festival ate it with their fingers, picking the meat off the fine bones. Afterwards, the scent of muskrat clung to their hands— earthy, pungent and unique.
Baltimore Banner photojournalist Kaitlin Newman contributed to this report.