By Trapline Editor Hal Sullivan
I have a fondness for muskrats, probably because they were the first furbearers I ever trapped. Where I was raised in northern Ohio, the drainage ditches were full of them. We rode our bicycles for miles along the roads that bordered the ditches, checking traps.
When I left those childhood haunts, I never again trapped in such good muskrat territory. But I still keep some muskrat equipment handy, just in case.
Sometimes when I’m beaver trapping, I get into a pocket where there are quite a few muskrats, and I make a few sets for them. Besides the fact that I just enjoy catching them, I have a couple of ulterior motives. Muskrats tend to swim thorugh the bigger bodygrips set for beavers. The trap may miss the smaller rodent, but it is fired and out of commission should a beaver come along later.
Also, from late winter into spring, male muskrats have engorged glands, and I use these glands as an ingredient in my trapping lures. The glands are located on the lower abdomen. They are off-white and pear shaped. When engorged, they can be as large as the end of your little finger, maybe a bit bigger. In this state, they are hard to overlook and often stay with the pelt when it is removed.
And the pelts have advanced nicely in price, too.
However, any muskrat trapping has to fit in with the rest of my trapping. Priority goes to the beavers and then the otters, and I can’t afford to go far out of my way to catch a muskrat, no matter how much fun it may be. The muskrat sets have to be made right along the beaver line.
A muskrat may be trapped any number of ways. You can make a really simple set by just scuffing an artificial trail up the bank with your boot and then setting a foothold in the water in front of it. But, you can’t do that around beavers. If you slick up a spot on the bank, every beaver in the colony will stop by to investigate. Then, you’re libel to have a beaver run off with your muskrat trap.
If you trap muskrats with footholds, you should make drowning sets, and it really doesn’t take much to drown a muskrat. Twelve inches of water will do it with a heavy trap. However, it takes a whole lot more than that to drown a beaver. As much as I like to keep the muskrats out of my beaver traps, I for sure want to keep the beavers out of my muskrat traps.
For that same reason, I don’t use any lure at these sets. Sometimes I use a slice of apple for muskrat bait, if I can make the set away from the beavers. But anything that attracts a muskrat is liable to attract a nosey beaver, as well.
Of course, raccoons also like apples, and there are probably as many raccoons on my traplines as there are muskrats. These are not high-quality coons. They aren’t worth any more than the muskrats, if that, and they are three or four times harder to put up. I can skin, flesh, and stretch a muskrat in a few minutes.
Rare is the occasion when I actually locate a muskrat den, but when I do, I may just stick a bodygrip trap in front of it. Sets don’t get any simpler than that. I keep a few 110s in the truck just for that purpose. If not, a 220 will do.
A muskrat can’t swim through a 220 like it sometimes can a larger trap. But when you catch a muskrat in a 220, be careful when you skin it. The spine is apt to be broken, and it is easy to pull the rat in two when trying to skin it.
I don’t set very many 220s for muskrats. I mainly look for natural blind sets where I can set small footholds, mostly feed piles and toilets.
The feed beds are typically found in shallow water, in isolated places where brush and vines overhang the bank. This cover hides muskrats from hawks and owls, their major predators.
The feed piles themselves are indicated by scraps of root, stem, or whatever vegetation the muskrats may be eating. Often, this debris gets thick enough to form a mat. And usually, you can tell where the rats are climbing on and off the mat. That’s where I nestle in a foothold trap.
Most locations are deep enough to drown a muskrat. So I just stake the trap out from the feed pile, and the muskrat winds up around the stake and drowns.
Muskrats are not big, and it is not hard to drown one. The weight of a No. 1.5 trap drowns one quickly. And the weight of a No. 1 trap, or even a No. 0, will take a muskrat down—as long as it doesn’t get tangled up in shallow water.
If I were seriously targeting muskrats, I might add some “guard” traps to the arsenal. These have the extra striker bar that comes up over a muskrat’s leg and body as the trap jaws fire. This locks the muskrat in place and keeps it from twisting around, which substantially reduces the risk that it might escape before it drowns. Guard traps truly shine in shallow water where drowning might be questionable.
But since muskrats are secondary targets for me, I just stick to plain old footholds and pass on questionable locations or locations that might require elaborate drowning rigs. I look for places where I can reach deep enough water just with the length of the trap chain. I may add a little snare cable to extend a chain.
But, in any case, I wire the trap tightly to the stake. I want that muskrat to wind itself up and drown right there. Another option is to drive a second stake out in deeper water beyond the first stake. If a muskrat tangles around the second stake, so much the better.
It doesn’t take much of a stake to hold a muskrat. Usually, I use a peeled beaver stick about an inch in diameter and long enough to reach bottom.
Otherwise, I find a dry, dead stick along the bank. I can’t use a green stake. Placing any fresh, green stick upright in water is equivalent to inviting a beaver to dinner. If I have any doubts that a stake might be too green, I make sure it is completely underwater.
The toilet set is my favorite for muskrats along a beaver line. Muskrats establish toilet stations where they regularly and repeatedly come out of the water. The droppings are brown or black, about the size and shape of small kidney beans. Regularly used toilets may collect a matted layer of dung, and the more fresh droppings, the more likely a set will catch a muskrat.
There are a couple of advantages to using this set, but the primary one for me is that it only attracts muskrats. Raccoons and beavers are not at all interested in muskrat toilets. Another is that toilet stations produce a high percentage of male rats during late winter and spring, and that’s when the males’ glands engorge for breeding season.
Males are the only ones with viable glands to harvest, and catching mostly males does not depress the muskrat population to any great extent. As mentioned, I am trapping rats to collect the glands as well as the pelts.
I look for toilet stations along the shoreline, especially around little hummocks that stick up out of the water. But the ones that are most obvious, the ones I prefer, are found on floating logs. And there is no shortage of floating logs in beaver habitat.
Most of these logs are partially submerged or float at an angle with just one end up, and the muskrats always approach from the submerged low side. That’s where I want the trap, just underwater on the submerged side.
The ease or difficulty of bedding a trap on a log depends mostly on how rotten the wood may be. The more rotten, the easier it is to chop out a trap bed
The best trap bed is a bowl-shaped depression right on top of the log. But it takes a pretty good-sized log to provide enough space for actually chopping such a bowl on top. Most of the time, I settle for chopping an oblong groove down the length of the log, just underwater.
My trap of choice for this set is the little No. 1 coilspring, because it can rest in a small groove. The base and the levers nestle in the groove while the jaws rest up on the sides.
I always bring my small ax when beaver trapping. But chopping with an ax underwater is not much fun. If I know I’m going to make muskrat sets, I may also bring the same mason’s hammer I use to drive stakes, to chip rocks and roots out of trap beds on dry land. The chisel side of the head is dandy for chopping out a groove on a log.
Making these drowning sets is as easy as falling off of a log—literally. I just wire the trap chain right to the log. The muskrat falls off and drowns. Where the water is not quite deep enough, I may instead stake the trap chain out a ways, to pull the rat into deeper water.
I’m not a hardcore muskrat trapper. Mostly, I just keep my eyes open for floating logs decorated with muskrat droppings.
But I do have a lot of fun at it, and some of my muskrat pelts brought $10 each at last spring’s sale.