Archive for January 27th, 2012


Hoofbeats Of A ‘Ratter

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“It was a dark and stormy night.”

No, seriously… it was.

Last night brought the umpteenth bought of freezing rain changing to all rain which ended up soaking the previously frozen ground with roughly a half inch of fresh, warm water. Warm water mixed with frozen ground yields greasy mud. That’s pretty much the gist of what my truck tires churned thru today. Any attempts to walk on that remains of the rotten, waterlogged ice are even more slick and adventurous yet.

That all made for a mild but wind-whipped afternoon as the next little cold front rolled by. From what I see on the local weather report this evening, it is nothing but much more of the same.

We can count on winter rains and semi-thaw conditions to swell waterway levels. Rising water levels = water animals on the move. If a half-inch of rain is forecast, smaller flows will rise several inches first. That of course depends on various terrain and elevation variables, but for the most part small flows are first to rise and likewise first to receded. What they flow into is next in line for levitation, followed by the bigger flows they feed and on down the gravity-fed watershed line.

We’re left to play the in-between game here, fourth week and counting. Not enough ice to walk on, too much ice to float in water. At this point in the season with muskrat prices what they are, all of the easily-reached spots within driving or even walking distance are well combed. I’m left with little pockets of water here & there which are a bit too small or a bit too far for others to deal with. Hiking in with a dozen #160s on stakes isn’t very efficient for big numbers by any means… but the only means for now is chipping away at the stone.

Flowing water means open water. Open water was due to rise overnight. So I spent part of yesterday scattering sets at the usual strategic spots in some local ditches and creeks. I’ve worked these waters for many years. Sometimes they hold bountiful muskrat populations. Sometimes not. This year was one of those “not” due to months’ long summertime drought. Small water rats simply ran out of overhead cover when most of the creeks around here ran dry.

This time of the year begins the earliest waves of displaced muskrats moving out of bigger bodies and into smaller bodies of water. Breaking ice on the big waters washes down thru and scrapes off muskrat houses built on edges of the flow. Those surviving rats now find themselves homeless, and the generally swim to other locations where bank den shelters are readily available.

That type of winter and spring flooding along with natural breeding season dispersal is how areas void of muskrats become resupplied.

Guarding the high-odds traffic patterns in these small waters are effective for traveling muskrats from now into late spring. Funny thing is, the very first stop on my short line today showed the very first set with a catch submerged. Water was murky from runoff and the #160 was staked solid in a clay bottom run. I could easily make out the brown shape of a catch… one that appeared to have a furry tail.

One thing I’ve learned over and over and over again thru the years is how rising water tends to push mink off the banks more than usual. Invariably, my take of incidental mink always increases right along with increased water flow. Either the hunting is good or traveling is easier… in any event, rain-soaked  weather systems + rising water levels = mink on the bottom.

This young male was one more example of that. As a passionate muskrat trapper myself, I’m always pleased to help reduce this primary predator of rats whenever possible. But on the other hand, mink (and weasels) are animals that have always fascinated me. As I’ve told the story many times in many places before, my very first exposure to any furbearing animal was a big male mink placed in my hands when I was five years old by a long-time family friend, (the late) John Magel. John was a big-numbers trapper here in NY state long before my time.

John and his brother Carr hunted deer with my dad, and one Saturday late in the season John had picked off a male mink in a trap check well before daylight on his way to our family’s house. He left the mink with me in our basement while the men went deer hunting. I’m still somewhat surprised there weren’t bald spots on that critter by the time he got back from my non-stop handling of it.

To this day I can recall seeing, feeling and smelling that big boar mink. If anyone is to blame for ruining me as a lifelong addicted furtaker, said blame lies squarely on John’s shoulders. Rest in peace, John… we’ll share some trapline stories again one day, I’m sure  :)

Anyways, I digress. The next set alongside that first held a muskrat, too. Both animals were pointed upstream, against the current flow. This is something I have noticed as a predominant pattern for decades now. Out of the countless thousands of muskrats and hundreds of mink collectively caught in bodygrip traps set blind in current flows, the vast majority were heading upstream at the time of capture.

I have come to believe that muskrats and mink spend a lot of time swimming on top of the water when heading downstream… but find the path of least resistance, the slowest current (due to pure properties of friction) right on bottom’s edge. And that’s where they tend to swim, and that’s where I strategically and purposely pick them off.

At another location down the line, we come to a spot where the same modest ditch meets another small ditch drainage. That particular ditch is on private land where access is unavailable. Wouldn’t you know it, the rat houses there are stacked thick as ticks on the neck of that male mink we picked up earlier from upstream?

I guarded either side of this juncture with a pair of #160s above and also below the “T”. This is the downstream view of those joint flows. Flagged stakes in twin middle channels of the current blocked all muskrat access up or down.

Wouldn’t you know it… both traps met success with both traveling rats headed… yup, you guessed it… upstream along the bottom.

And so it goes in this strangest of seasons where fall never ended, winter never began and early spring is struggling to arrive. I’m listening to rainfall outside while sitting here in this visit with you. Tomorrow brings more flurries, more cold and more wind. Trappers around here at this point in time have two basic choices: put some miles on the bottom of your boots while hoofing it into pockets of accessible muskrats (and beaver) or go and do just about anything else under the sun.

The choice for me is easy, if you can even call it a choice. I’ll be out there slogging thru the slush, wind and mud. The hoofbeats you hear will be those of an addicted ratter, seeking his fix from one filled #160 at a time :)

Tight chains

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