A great day in the marsh creating future trappers and trapping advocates
by Carly Deacon
Folks trap for the same reasons we fish and hunt. It’s a part of that whole lifestyle. It is an appreciation for nature as well as quality time with friends and family. Trappers, like hunters and anglers, are stewards of the land and have strong connections with wildlife, conservation and the environment. We use trapping as an effective means to manage problem wildlife, to manage overabundance of wildlife, and to control the spread of wildlife disease.
Landowners and municipalities use trapping to reduce property damage such as damage to dykes, livestock, hydraulic structures and flooding caused by dams. Fur bearing animals also provide us with a source of food, warmth against the elements and their fur is used for the most exquisite detailing on jackets, mitts, boots, hats and now even moving into stylish home décor accessories. All that being said, trapping is a tradition and practice that we want to see passed on to future generations!
My past job with Delta Waterfowl Foundation sparked my interest in trapping. During my undergrad years I worked for Delta as a field researcher during the summers, collecting data on duck nest success on their predator management sites (designated areas that were being trapped for animals that are detrimental to duck nests such as fox, raccoon, skunk, coyote, etc.). Moving forward in my career at Delta, once I was a full time employee, I was able to spend some time with the trappers on their trap lines.
They were experts in the trade and had many techniques down to a science. However every day and every animal was different. Even with 30 years of experience under their belt, they too were still learning and experimenting. The thought and detail put into each set amazed me and the work it took to outsmart the animals made it insanely rewarding when success was achieved!
Much like most new sports, when taking up traditions like hunting, fishing and trapping, mentorship is essential. Unless you have someone to show you the ropes, it is difficult to pursue these endeavors on your own. Trapping fell in this category for me, even after my time with the Delta trappers and taking the Provincial Trappers Course, I was nowhere near confident enough to purchase a trapper license and venture out. Over the last year however, and thanks to great mentors, that feeling has changed for me.
Muskrat Trapping: A Great place to Start
I have quickly learned that muskrat trapping is the least daunting of all fur bear trapping. These little rodents are easy to find, accessible and happen to be relatively abundant in certain marshy areas. They are a semi-aquatic rodent and a member of the mice and vole family. They love areas of still, or slow-moving water bodies such as sloughs, marshes, ponds or other various types of wetlands (which we have plenty of here in MB). They often build dens in the banks of a water body (if the bank slope is adequate), but more commonly, build houses made of vegetation in marshes and sloughs.
My hubby (Clarke) and I were invited to Oak Hammock Marsh to participate in a “How to Trap Muskrat” educational day for youth. We gladly attended, representing MWF and our interest in the province’s next generation of trappers, but also to hopefully learn a few tricks so Clarke and I can start trapping on our own. This special education day was organized by the local Netley/Libau Fur Council (an affiliate of the Manitoba Trappers Association) under a special trapping permit and is their second year running. Their objectives are to create another outdoor opportunity for families to enjoy together, to introduce easy methods of muskrat trapping to some local kids to spark their interest in the trapping lifestyle, and last but not least, to manage the population of muskrats at Oak Hammock Marsh in efforts to reduce damage to the dykes and minimize the incremental maintenance costs the government incurs repairing them annually. All amazing objectives I would say!
Oak Hammock Marsh was once a natural marsh spanning 47,000 hectares from the North edge of Winnipeg to Teulon. A small portion of that original marsh (3,450 hectares) is now artificially maintained with the help of 22 km of earth dykes, segregating the marsh into manageable cells where water levels can be manipulated to mimic natural wetland cycles. The muskrats thrive in this habitat. The dykes provide kilometers of prime habitat and the carefully managed cells are flourishing with emergent and submergent vegetation which provides them with food and adequate den building materials. When we pulled up to the marsh and looked over the first cell of water, we could clearly see at least 100 rat houses. They were endless!
Chris Heald led this adventure, an active member of the Netley/Libau fur council, valuable MWF volunteer and a good friend. Rob Andrushuk, Director of Manitoba Trappers Association, was also leading the way. Chris is one of those guys that is always looking for ways to share his passions for the outdoors with others. Chris and his son Andrew are the “Intro to Trapping” instructors at our Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program and Chris leads the Canadian Faces of Freedom initiatives taking wounded veterans out fishing and on waterfowl hunts. Needless to say, the Heald family are great people! We separated into groups with the kids and ventured out into the marsh to set approximately 35 traps.
Setting Muskrat Traps
We observed Chris and Andrew for the first few sets, but it wasn’t long before Clarke and I were also helping the kids set traps with a small amount of guidance. Chris kept it simple using stoploss foothold traps. A common size used for muskrat are 1 or 1 and a 1/2. Any jaw type trap (body gripping or foothold traps) must be set as a submersion set that exerts clamping force on a muskrat and that maintains the muskrat underwater until it drowns. To ensure you are using the correct certified trap refer to the Manitoba Trapping Guide, or call Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship or the Manitoba Trappers Association. They will have all the information you need on certified traps regulated for trapping various Manitoba species.
We first scouted for the muskrat houses with the best potential. Active muskrat houses remain unfrozen and have an open hole inside where the rats access the house coming in and out of the ice. A long spear works well to find active houses. Once you know the house is active, you can start digging into the house using a small shovel or trowel to find the hole in the ice. This part gets a bit dirty, but fun nonetheless. Once Inside the house, we cleared the ice hole of vegetation and ensured the set trap was placed directly beside the hole (as close as it can be to the water) restricting the rat to only option once it is caught…and that option is into the water. While digging the vegetation out, if you notice some fresh green clippings, this is also a good indication that the house is active. Once the trap was set we re-covered the hole with the original vegetation, being careful not to drop vegetation back into our freshly cleaned out hole and setting the trap off. Adequately covering up the hole again is important to ensure the house doesn’t freeze. Every house was different. It was interesting to see the muskrats natural pathways and shelves beside the ice hole…this certainly helped decide the best place to set the trap. The next morning Chris pulled more kids in to get involved, his daughter Jocelyne and her friend Shaelyn – two great girls full of curiosity and excitement.
Trapping is Like Christmas Morning
Checking the traps was like opening gifts on Christmas Morning. So exciting and incredibly rewarding. We pulled the vegetation carefully back to peek inside. If the trap was still visible and set, we covered it up again with little disturbance. The excitement rose when the trap was not visible, meaning it was down the water hole and there was a chance we might have caught one. I had a lot of fun with the girls. They squeaked and giggled when the trap wasn’t visible. It was always a negotiation about who was brave enough to put their hand down the hole to pull up the trap. We all gathered in anticipation at each house and announced our rewards across the marsh to the other groups when we were successful! “We caught another one Dad”, Jocelyn’s excitement was so contagious! We ended up with 9 muskrats that morning, which I thought was pretty great. They were in good condition with a nice think underlying waterproof layer of fur overlain by long, glossy guard hairs. They ranged in colour and size from light brown and reddish to dark brown. Adults can weigh from 1.5 to 4 pounds and range from 16-25 inches in length. Muskrats have a long flattened tail and webbed hind feet. They are cool little critters with big teeth resembling a beaver. Muskrat in Manitoba are in their prime during the months of mid-February to mid-April, depending on the weather that season. In southern Manitoba in Open Trapping Areas 1-4, seasons are open from Oct 14- November 30, and again on March 15-April 30. However Wildlife Management Areas like Oak Hammock Marsh and Grants Lake require a special permit to trap in those areas. Refer to the Trapping Guide to get the trapping season schedule for all species and to review the trapping boundaries outlined for the province. This will give you the basics, and for more details and information speak to a Conservation Officer in your region or call Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship.
We had lunch on the tail-gate at Oak Hammock that afternoon to spend as much time as we could to enjoy everything the marsh had to offer. In these first days of spring the marsh was finally waking up. Tons of geese flew overhead and the warm sun began melting the top layer of ice on the marsh. I couldn’t get enough!
Skinning and Drying
Skinning muskrat is surprisingly pretty easy once you get the hang of it. The best way to learn is to do a few on your own. We went back to the Heald residence that day and hung the rats in his garage to skin. We all chipped in on skinning the critters, fleshing the hide and pinning them properly onto drying boards to help the kids out. I love this kind of work. It can be a bit laborious but the results are so rewarding! 9 rats was a piece of cake, I can’t imagine if we had caught 35.
Muskrat trapping is simple enough for kids of all ages to participate in, and in the right area the the odds of catching are pretty good, which fuels the excitement and interest! It is so important that trapping traditions are continued and passed on through mentorship and programs like this education day for youth. These kids have learned the importance of this practice and whether they become trappers or not, will have a positive outlook and respect for the trade going forward.
Since this first day helping trap rats at Oak Hammock, Clarke and I have had the pleasure to also learn how to set beaver traps with Chris and Andrew. Another successful and fun day that I will eventually tell you all about! I’m so thankful for the mentors in my life. Big thanks to Chris, Rob and Andrew for letting us tag along on these great trapping adventures.