Sometimes in Michigan the only time we can trap muskrat, mink, raccoon, otter and beaver in open water that is not frozen is during the Month of November. Please check the Michigan Hunting and Trapping rule book to see when your water trapping season opens in your zone, I believe all zones are open to water trapping by the end of November. One can catch water animals after the lakes and rivers freeze however I’ve always enjoyed running a canoe or boat line prior to the deep winter freezes. Of course in the last decade we have seen many a December or January with open water, but to play it safe if your going to plan a water line, November or the first part of December are usually a safe bet for open water trapping.
Most of this article will focus on sets to catch Muskrat, Mink and Raccoon, as most, if not all counties in Michigan have some of all three of the previously mentioned furbearing animals. The nice thing is, usually the same gear and trap sets can be used to capture all three furbearers. Toward the end of the article I will mention a little about catching Otter and Beaver.
When water trapping you should try to focus your trap sets close to where you see animal sign, i.e. tracks in the mud at water’s edge, muskrat or mink droppings on logs and rocks, or close to the cuttings that muskrat make of roots and vegetation. The raccoon tracks are some of the easiest to identify and the back foot looks similar to a baby footprint in shape. A lot of the time raccoon will start running the streams and waterways more after corn fields and other upland crops start to be exhausted in November and December and the water still provides them a good meal when preparing for semi hibernation.
The big three “Muskrat, Mink and Raccoon” can all be caught using size number 1 ½ or size number 1 foothold traps, my preferred would be the 1 ½ size Long Springs or Coilspring Traps. Mink and Muskrat can be caught in #110 4” X 4” body grip traps placed in trails, dens and holes along the water’s edge. Raccoon can be caught in #160 and # 220 body grip traps. When using body grip traps, make sure to check the rule book as some areas have size and baiting restrictions.
Body Grip type traps usually dispatch the catch quickly, still wire all body grip traps to a stake or sapling. The foothold type traps require the trapper to use a drowner wire or other type of drowning system. A good drowning system can be made by driving a long hardwood stake in knee or deeper water and running some 14 gauge wire to a stake at shore. A drowner lock is added or already on the end of the trap chain and is attached to the wire prior to tying off at the shore stake. The drowner lock should be put on in a fashion that the trapped animal can take the trap toward the deeper water but cannot go back toward shore. All of the Big Three furbearing animals will quickly be dispatched in several feet of water.
A lot of the Big Three are caught in blind sets. A blind set is any set where the trap is set where the animal is naturally traveling. A good example would be placing a foothold trap under a few inches of water where a small trail enters the water from the bank. Those small trails are usually traveled by Muskrat, Mink and Raccoon. Even when blind setting for furbearing animals I still use a small amount of lure. The lure can make them spend a little more time around the trap and I find that the catch is better when using a good lure. Lenon’s Muskrat Super All Call Lure is my lure of choice and is used by thousands of successful trappers catching lots of the Big Three.
In addition to setting a lot of good blind sets on hot animal sign, my favorite water trap set is a pocket set at water edge. Think of a pocket set as a dirt hole set at waters edge. One locates a pocket set where the bank is kind of steep and the water is a couple of inches deep at the edge. I usually wear hip boots and construct the set while standing in the water. I find the set produces more mink and other critters if I do not leave tracks all over the bank and keep it natural. I dig a hole in the bank 6" to 8" in diameter and 8" to 12" back into the bank. My foothold trap is set in front of the pocket set. By setting in front of the pocket and not inside the pocket one can catch mink, raccoon and muskrat that might be just cruising the water’s edge. By adding a piece of Muskrat meat or fresh fish and some lure, one hopes to make some furbearers want to check out the eye appeal of the whole and scent and attraction of the hole. Always remember to stake in deeper water to quickly and humanely drown the furbearing animal once it is caught.
When I was a school boy trapper back in the 1970's, Michigan trappers could not use muskrat colony traps, now we can and they are extremely effective at catching muskrats. These traps have two one way doors that allow a muskrat to enter but not exit. For many years I saw the pictures in ads in trapping magazines about this trap, so when it became legal to use in Michigan I quickly put them to use. The muskrat colony traps often catch two, three or more muskrats on one check. Simply place the muskrat colony trap under the water in narrow spots of ditches, den entrances or trails through the marshes and streams that the muskrat frequent. I usually place vegetation or a branch on top of the colony trap to force the muskrat to dive into the trap entrance. A trapper should take special care to make sure he marks the location of this type of trap since if it is not removed after muskrat trapping season it can and will continue to dispatch muskrats. A great U.P. trapper of the past, Mark Spencer, taught me at a demo the importance respecting this type of trap and its use.
In practice, when I'm trapping water animals I usually take advantage of making some traditional dirt hole sets on the high banks along whatever body of water I'm trapping. First it is kind of nice to get a few fox and coyote while checking water traps, secondly it is really nice to still have some traps in working order when we get the occasional flood during trapping season that can knock out our regular water sets out of action for days. Those high bank dirt holes sets also pick up an occasional mink or otter. I also usually place my stake for my drowner wire on the high bank so I can easily adjust my trap for water fluctuations. I have real good luck trapping streams that are controlled by dams as I find less fluctuation in water levels. Also when possible try to locate your open water sets in areas of current or rapids when possible as this can keep the sets working some time longer when ice first sets in.
I also have pretty good luck using floats for trapping muskrats. The obvious advantage is that floats keep working during water fluctuations. I have some areas I trap for muskrat where the water is quite deep for some of my regular favorite sets and I can easily set a muskrat float just about anywhere. My floats work the best when set with trees over hanging or in thick vegetation. Just make sure there is a foot of water so any muskrat or mink will drown. I place vegetation and Lenon's Muskrat Super All Call Lure on my floats usually guarded with two foothold traps.
In my December article I will cover in detail how to trap otter and beaver in our great State. For now if you are setting foothold for other water animals and know you have beaver and otter in the area you are trapping the Big Three you might want to incorporate 11 Gauge wire for your drowners. 14 Gauge wire can hold beaver and otter but occasionally can break with large beaver.
A final tip is to carry some newspapers with you in your boat or vehicle and wrap any muskrat or mink caught during the day. When you get home the fur should be dry and rats and mink ready to be skinned. I usually put up rats and mink immediately after skinning and freeze raccoon after skinning for put up on boards later in the winter when not as much is going on. Hopefully you shoot your ten point buck early in the season this year and have a little time left to enjoy harvesting a few of the Big Three.
I welcome you to visit my websites at PcsOutdoors.com and LenonLures.com I always welcome call from fellow trappers at (989) 569-3480 ext. 225