Muskrats are just fun to trap. Easy to set for, easy to skin, and just plain fun…well, most of the time anyway!
Years ago, I used to trap the Killbuck marshes in central Ohio. They were nothing like the big Wisconsin and other marshes where trappers can catch thousands of rats in a season. However, it was a good location with respectable catches and good prices. We got as high as $10.50 on rats in those days.
The season opened at midnight, and of course, I HAD to be there to set the first trap at midnight. It was always a long day leading up because of pulling my fox line and cleaning traps for later. A late supper and then get to the marsh. We did not have the headlight technology back then that we do today. Headlamps were rather big and awkward and not near as bright or long-lasting as they are today, but it was what we had, and thus we did not have great visibility.
So now it's midnight, and I have a basket full of traps on my back, going as fast as I can to get them set. I am walking fast down a near waist-deep channel when I trip over a log and stumble forward. I made it another ten feet before my own feet stopped keeping pace with my upper body, and down I went. Filling my waders to the brim with cold dark November water!
It was invigorating, I tell you! Downright invigorating! Well, muskrat trappers are not really that much smarter than beaver trappers, so I climb on the bank, empty out my waders, put them back on and keep setting all night and all day until dark that day. The good thing about trapping in a marsh in waders is you do not often get cold no matter what else happens. We used to eat three lunches a day trapping that marsh and did not put on one ounce of weight.
I really enjoyed trapping in that marsh. Good rats, a lot better than what we have in Montana, which brings me to a marsh or pond Roy and I trapped here called Freezout pond number 2. It's part of a waterfowl area, and pond 2 is pretty much a joke since it is usually pretty dry. But Roy and I hit just right one year, and it was wet and full of rats.
The pond is about 1.75 miles long on the long edge, has some small manmade islands in it, and a rail grade on the west side. These worked well for dens and in the rest were houses. Back in the Killbuck marshes, we had many houses in the button bushes but no button bushes here. A few willows, but mostly the rat houses, were just anchored to the bottom.
If you have never been to open country in Montana, we have this little-known phenomenon called wind. 60 to 70 MPH wind is not uncommon though generally unwelcomed by most, including me! A few years back, a straight wind was measured just north of there at 150 MPH. So I had never set muskrat houses anchored to the bottom in 4 feet of water in that kind of wind, and the first check found a lot of my 1 1/2 LS laying on the bottom unsprung. When I went to put them back, the chains were too short!
The dang wind blew the houses a foot or so. Ya, no kidding. I had to move stakes and learn to leave some extra chain when setting the south or west side of a house or repeat what had happened next good wind.
I have many 110 conibears, and I use them a lot on rats, but my favorite trap will always be the 1 ˝ long spring. Their big catch area grabs them good and is heavy to take them down fast. If you set ten den holes with 110's and ten with 1 ˝'s and set the 1 ˝'s right, you will catch more rats in the 1 ˝ over three days. So, what do I mean by right? I put the trap jaws first in the hole as far as practical. If the hole is real tight, you must be careful not to get in where the jaws will bind on the sides of the hole. Stretch the chain tight but not so tight as to pull on the trap, so the rat comes out of the hole and does not go up inside of it. No set is foolproof, and no set will catch every critter, but the 1 ˝ long spring is a way underrated trap for rats. It will also take a lot of mink and especially big male mink that will sometimes detour around a 110. It's just Ok for coon, but I have taken a lot of beaver by the front foot in them. So if beaver are mixed in, anchor your trap well.
Another neat thing you can do with a 1 ˝ is to use it on a steep bank as you find on the outside of a creek or stream where the water has cut the bank straight. Push a few sticks horizontally into the side of the bank and place the jaw frame on one, and the other (s) put the long spring over them. You have a quick platform set for a rat. If it is downstream from a rock or dirt clod with a touch of slower backwater, the rat will often come in and land there, stepping on your pan.
Rats are not as dumb as some people think, and when they see a relative lying in a trap in the den hole, they get shy. The 1 ˝ lets the rat get 5 feet (I use 3-foot chains on mine) away from the den.
So anyway, Roy and I are fighting the wind and slush one day in the canoe and at the far end of the pond from the truck. The slush is like a snow cone slush from the wind and cold whipping the water. It is noisy and nasty to canoe through. Suddenly Roy spots a big flock of Snow Geese coming our way. He wants to get us and the canoe between two small islands, which will put us right under them. We get in position, turn sideways in the canoe, me in the back, Roy in the front, have our 12 gauges ready, and now they are on us. We both fire, the canoe rocks a little more than I like. Then it goes over, flipping both of us out in 5 feet of really, really cold-water upside down in chest-high waders. Yes, headfirst entirely upside down through the slush into the water we go! The canoe rights itself and gives us a look like, "I don't know what your problem is, I stayed upright!" The canoe also decided to empty everything else that was in it. Traps, rats, gloves, shells, and somewhere in the fun, Roy dropped his shotgun.
Well lucky for us, we know exactly where it is at! Under-five feet of slush-covered water! There is NO getting used to water that cold. You know, like you have heard people say, "jump in, you will get used to it!" No, not in November; in high winds and sub-freezing temperatures, there is NO getting used to it.
Greed always overtakes sanity, so we retrieved all our equipment and rats, including Roy's shotgun. Mine was still locked in my hand. Roy thought we should head as fast as we could for the truck before we froze to death. However, I recalled that balmy night back in the Killbuck marshes when I filled my waders at midnight and how well I survived it and said, "Nah, just empty out your waders, we will warm up on the way back, checking the rest of the traps!" The mind does not seem to retain the true discomfort or pain of a situation and blindly allows one to convince themselves they are superhuman.
So that is what we did, and other than the water coming in a hole in my right foot, we were quite warm by the time we got to the truck!
Rats are a lot of fun…most of the time, it is always a thrill to watch a kid or an adult catch their first. Watch their amazement as they stroke the fur and admire their catch. I'll never forget my first rat, that's for sure.
A day's catch from pond two blow-drying off before skinning.