We’ve all been there – two or three weeks into the trapping season and most of our high-traffic sets have already paid off with catch after catch. The early morning trap checks start to get mundane as activity at locations dramatically dry up. You always have plenty of energy to check trap after trap when you’re catching fur, but once those traps begin to remain empty day after day insanity begins to set in; especially for someone like me with an attention span about as long as a vole’s tail.
I never really thought too much of Muskrats early on. My first few seasons were so tied up with chasing beaver and coyote, bouncing between land and water; critters like muskrats were low on the totem pole. Most trappers probably thought I was crazy, especially with ‘rats fetching a prettier penny over the last few years, but I’ve always been about catching what I’m most interested in, and not necessarily what the fur market’s doing.
I remember my first real dealings with muskrats, when one of my landowners needed them cleared out, as they were plugging up a small drainage culvert on the property with stems and shoots. I figured I had the traps, and I had already taken a good amount of beaver off the property, so I’d give the ‘rats a shot to break the daily trap line routine. I was instantly hooked.
Trapping muskrats is usually what most young trappers start out on. They’re fairly easy to catch, the sets and traps are cheap, and you can really stack up the numbers quick if you’re in the right spot. I ended up trapping 14 of those little buggers off that property over the span of a month, from one strategically placed trap. After learning habits and traits, travel ways, signs, and speaking with other trappers, I would eventually pull a handful more off that property before the season was out. It was great because I was still trapping muskrats when all my other fur-bearer sets on the property dried up, which meant constant action, and more importantly, constant brain stimulation well through the season. Plus I had enough to make those muskrat mittens a local customer had been on me about!
Muskrat trapping can be quite the experience, as they don’t always follow the same characteristics. You can catch them in typical runs, undercut banks and areas where they emerge from the water to feed on land, but they do tend to occasionally turn up in places where you don’t expect them. I remember setting a “pocket set” for mink, baited with beaver hindquarters; I caught more muskrats in that set than I did mink! My guess is the curiosity factor; they came up to check out the smells, or even the baited cubbyhole itself. It’s no big secret that rodents love holes. Many times I simply set a blind run or natural travel corridor, and you would think I had a muskrat magnet on the end of my 110 body-grip trap There’s also quite a lot of versatility that comes with trapping ‘rats. Pretty much any trap on the market will catch them if placed just right; everything from 110’s all the way up to 330’s and 660’s (although I wouldn’t recommend these larger traps if targeting muskrats specifically). My ideal ‘rat trap is a tie between the 160 body-grip trap and the 1.5 foothold, mainly because they will certainly snag ‘rats, and also snag a slew of other critters, such as mink and raccoons. Why the 160 over the 110? More on that in an upcoming article, but primarily because I can get more open space coverage with a slightly larger trap.
I know plenty of trappers that focus primarily on Muskrats, especially the long-line trappers that can rake in a triple digit harvest by the season’s end. When I talk to older folks in the “non-trapper” population, most of them say the same thing: “Oh, you’re a trapper? I used to trap muskrats as a kid on my way to school”. I used to think this was because they were easy to catch, and the price was right, and maybe that thought is partially true. However, now that I actually trap for them, I can see that it’s “just a good old time” as well. I remember years ago talking with a good friend of mine who now traps the North Country. When he said he caught some ‘rats one night, I jokingly asked him how he had the time to “deal with puny muskrats” when there were so much beaver to focus on in this particular swamp. I’ll admit I had some “tunnel vision” in my earlier days of trapping, and I’ll also admit I felt stupid when he answered, because it was such a simple concept. He said he simply tucked a bunch of 110’s into his coat pocket when he would check his beaver traps, if he found a spot with muskrat sign, or just an area that simply “looked good”, he would pull one out and set it. “I have to walk by the damn thing to get my beavers, I might as well set it, I can’t catch anything if it’s sitting in the truck”.
I never really looked at trapping from that angle before then. Trapping for me really originated out of “control work”, and I don’t get many muskrat control calls. I was always so focused on critters I knew, like beaver and mink that I never slowed down to think about the other critters that I was passing up.
Muskrats can be trapped just about anywhere you’re trapping for beaver, mink, or other water-based fur bearers. Setting under-cut banks with “bottom edge sets” and “pocket sets” produce great results if the ‘rats are there. If you can locate runs and trails, in the form of stirred-up silt on the bottom of stream beds you’re in good shape. Muskrat “toilets” or areas where they are climbing out of the water to feed are also ideal locations. Usually these “toilets” can be some kind of landmark that sticks out of the water – a sandbar, rock, or log. Uninhabited beaver lodges also make great areas to spot them. Dens are usually made in the sides of banks, or in “huts” which look like a small beaver lodges made with shoots and grass in swamps and bogs. Muskrats will also search for places to feed and rest out of the watchful eyes of predators like hawks and owls, so look for areas where banks have overhanging grass or root systems. Colony traps work well for high numbers of ‘rats, submerged in a stream run or brook. I’ll admit I haven’t experimented with colony traps yet. I haven’t found them a necessity like long-line ‘rat trappers do, although trappers I know that use them, rave about the ease and success rates.
I started to really process my surroundings and properties more once I began to think about “mixed-bag” trapping, and I can attest to the fact that throwing a few Muskrat traps in the truck for those “slow” days might just be the “pick-me-up” you need to breathe new life into your trapping properties.