Archive for January 16th, 2012


“See” Thru The Windows

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It’s winter-time in New York state… and sure looked every bit the part today. Tomorrow might be another story, but we can only live our lives one day at a time anyway.

The past few nights have been cold enough to make ice, with last night’s temp falling into single digits of mercury in the measurement tube. Water levels rose and warmed with last week’s rainfall, but they cannot hold those temps forever.

I stepped onto the windswept ice over shallow water this morning, anxious to see if enough of a floor existed to support one 185lb trapper, with added clothing and gear in tow. Worst-case scenario was a waist-deep dunk & scramble back on top with assistance from my otter sled’s flotation.

The first thing I noticed was a series of holes down the middle of this run left by a beaver and its desire for fresh air while cruising along. That shelf is at least 1.5 inches thick where broken by a bead-butt, I presume. That’s one solid act of impact, right there. Even if the ice were somewhat soft or mushy at the time, I’m always impressed by the sheer force beavers can impose on ice cover above.

No need to chop or probe for depth of ice here… that lone beaver left a clear window to see thru, and I hadn’t fallen thru yet. Might as well grab the sled and go :)

Today was mostly about scouting the ice, looking for pockets of muskrat populations to prepare for an extended steel assault thru the ice. Our weather forecast for the next seven days includes overnight warming with rain, highs in the mid-40s F tomorrow and then return of arctic air Wed – Fri. But by Saturday, temps in the upper 40s and rising into the 50s or higher next week brings on the customary January thaw.

Considering today’s ice was 1.5″ at most and will only degrade from there for a day or two, all I could muster was a few probe sets close to the shore where walking distance can reach the stakes if ice won’t hold me tomorrow. With nothing much better to do with my time than enjoy an extended jaunt across barely acceptable ice, I spent a couple of hours in the wind-blown sunshine doing exactly that.

Around the bend I from those beaver breaks, I came to a hole in the ice where open water persists. Now only one or two factors can be at play here: either a spring flow / ancient tile drain boils up from the bottom, or some aquatic animal makes that a high traffic area. The water was cloudy but I could “feel” a defined channel at the bottom with my trusty potato rake… better know as the “rat-trapper’s tool”. They are invaluable for reaching out to grab something that’s just out of reach, and especially so for keeping feet dry in a boat or on dry ground.

Anyways, I staked in two #210s on the bottom of that channel run, guess we’ll see who it belongs to tomorrow. Snapped & empty traps = beaver. Fur plugged traps = muskrats. Pretty simple diagnosis there on the first check ahead of us.

I made a couple more sets within easy hiking distance along shore, then dropped the sled’s rope and strolled deep into the marsh. Took the time to take a few photos along the way, which hopefully helps answer a bunch of questions on what exactly to look for when working thru the ice for muskrats and also beaver.

In this little bay tucked away in the swamp, we find a feeder hut poking up thru the bare ice. At first glance from the moment it came into full view, it was clear where the rats are actively working that location.

See the dark, clear spot between thicker opaque slabs of ice? That channel froze last… it resisted freezing for some reason. Might that reason be turbulence from collective muskrats’ tails? Sure looks that way to me. Bubble-runs trapped below the window suggest it sees plenty of traffic back & forth.

Two or three bodygrip traps, one colony trap in that run and you’ve skimmed off the available rats in three checks or less.

Just a bit further along the journey finds an active muskrat house tucked in the corner of a bay where the water narrows to a channel in the endless sea of cattails. There aren’t any open runs visible and for that matter, no clear ice or bubble trails to follow. But we do see a floating log in the middle-left of this picture where a break in the cattails runs thru. I’m pretty sure we can chop holes on either side of that log and find a grooved run where heavy traffic flows thru, just waiting to be blocked with a pair of #160s or #210s here in NY.

Locations like that are tailor-made for colony traps, or perhaps we should say colony traps are tailor made for spots like that. Regardless which is the chicken or egg in this equation, that’s the type of place where winter rats are easily corralled.

Axe marks the spot in our next stop examined. Walking along the corridor, we see another dark spot in the ice. Dark spots against opaque ice – thin spots. Thin spots mean they resisted freezing. Why? Usually inside of muskrat (or beaver) territory it’s because of concentrated animal activity.

Here we have some type of den or feeder up underneath a nearby hummock of ground. That dark spot is either the emergence hole coming out of the cover or more likely the spot where exiting rats surface for one big gulp of air. Did you know that rats going one way in a run may tend to swim the surface (or just below ice) while rats going the opposite direction swim the bottom instead? It all has to do with terrain, weather conditions and water conditions intertwined.

Suffice it to say that we learn in time thru experience where the key hotspots are to set on bottom or sub-surface in muskrat (or beaver) runs. In this specific location, we want any traps set to rest beneath the zone where that axe lies… nearer to actual hole’s entry is all the better.

Same axe, different stop. See the dark ice trail down the middle of this flow, headed towards a natural pinch point? Grab a colony trap or two – three bodygrips for this one, and let’s get chopping!

Thin ice, open water, point of cattails jutting out into the flow. Whaddya think about that?

Wider angle view of the same spot… streak of dark ice down the middle, bubbles along the way, open water at the bottom edge zone. What more to we need to know?

Feeder hut + dark ice and bubbles = do we have any traps left to be set?

Same story, different spot. Are you “seeing” inside those windows to the muskrat world yet? It’s all about time out on the line, hours spent walking ice thru various conditions in myriad locations. After awhile, what you see in open water is easy to visualize when ice covers the landscape. Do this long enough, and ice cover is less of a hindrance than it is a new highway into previously unreachable locations.

As will all activity on the water, safety is always first. This was thin ice I walked today… on known water depths of less than three feet to bottom. Now the term “bottom” is relative, as some of these potholes have several feet of silt and muck before any firm footing is found. There is no way under the sun I’d be farther than rope’s reach of my otter sled if water was deeper than three feet. That sled is high flotation and will actually serve as an emergency boat if I needed to scramble in.

Wearing neoprene waders for warmth and dryness if ice gives way is imperative when ice is less than 4″ solid and hard. I’m also sporting a fully zipped, tied off lifejacket too… while carrying an axe in one hand with blade pointed away from my body and a potato rake in the other. I have ice picks with handles roped around my collar to give me two “claws” for getting back on solid surface if for any reason the axe and rake fail to do so. A working cellphone sealed inside a ziplock baggie is my connection to help in a hurry.

I also make it a point to walk the shady side of a flow… where sun hits least and ice is usually thickest. I’m walking the opaque ice and treading carefully around dark spots and snowdrifts where ice may be too thin. After awhile, you learn to “feel” your way around when strolling across ice..

Winter weather conditions being what they are (or more aptly, aren’t) keeps me from stringing a long line out on the ice. With our fourth straight week of freeze – thaw conditions and at least more more such week on the way, it’s been logistically impossible to roll out a line of holes in the hard water. It would have been wonderful to chop forty holes, stake in that many #210s and stroll the ice tomorrow with 20+ plump winter rats along for the ride in my sled. But the hours spent outside today were far from wasted: it was actually time invested. I scouted some new-to-me locations, got a feel for where the pockets of target animals are, and well prepared to work those effectively if/when weather permits… be that this season, or next.

Most importantly, we brought you along for my experiences this day. Trapping muskrats, beaver or anything else below the ice is far easier than many might think. Just keep your eyes open, look for changes in the ice at well-known critter congregation zones and when in doubt, get the axe out.

Before you know it, you’ll be waiting for hard ice to roll out your own red carpet into remote stretches unreachable to mankind by any other means than walking on water  :)

See You On The Line

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