Saturday, January 25, 2020

A Memorable Day on the Trapline in Pursuit of a Truly Renewable Natural Resource

One of the 32 muskrats we recovered from 48 sets in the Tower Marsh;
check out an article we posted a couple springs back about this important player in the coastal marsh ecosystem
Thus far, the month of January has been dominated by grant-related writing, administrative logistics relating to our conservation easements (first secured and second pending), and accounting work to ready us for 2019 tax preparation -- all important stuff, but none exactly thrilling subjects for a blog post. That said I've been wanting to write about the one shining exception that pulled me into the field for a day in the marsh the week before last.

Muskrats prefer cattails to construct their
mounded dens (as evidence by the
isolated Phragmites left standing)
We were fortunate enough to be able to host a long-time friend of Roy's (who also happens to be an exceptionally nice guy and expert trapper) at our bunkhouse for the entire week of January 13. Darl and Roy go back all the way to their college years, but he has been trapping the creek bottoms, river banks, shorelines, sloughs, and beaver dams of northeast Ohio even longer (like since he was eight). This is a guy who proudly confesses he's been trapping Ohio for more than half a century -- without missing a season.

Until very recently, Darl did all of this while holding down a full-time natural resource position for a local park district and (in more recent years) overseeing a family maple syrup farm that operated near the Pennsylvania line for a full hundred years. Now retired, he can devote even more time to what is clearly a passion.

I couldn't get to the marsh till almost 8:30 that Wednesday morning. Darl had already been up for a few hours (at least!) and had already checked more than 30 of the traps that he set the day before by the time I got in his punt boat. While I have some exposure to trapping -- mostly as a young kid watching an older cousin and in reading books on the subject -- I learned more in six hours than I could have learned any other way. It was a memorable day (to put it modestly). Below is a photo depiction of some of what I saw and learned.

Where's Waldo? (or more accurately, Where's Darl?) This overview shows one large den constructed primarily of surrounding
cattails; this is a particularly large den, so Darl is placing two sets, marked by hardwood stakes tipped with bright orange paint

One of our punt boats loaded with gear
In the natural history-focused article that I wrote on muskrats back in 2017, I mentioned that local lore suggests 10,000 (ten thousand!) rats were routinely trapped off of the Bay View marshes a hundred years ago. I've now heard that statistic repeated from multiple sources. My single day with Darl involved 48 "sets" (discrete traps), 32 successes (not a bad batting average at 0.667), a couple dozen over-ripened apples, 2 sweaty guys, 1 muddy boat, and a lot of gear.

My biggest takeaways from the day:
(1) trapping -- even when it is 45 degrees and sunny in January -- is a heck of a lot of work (the best kind of work);
(2) trapping requires a sound understanding of animal behavior, but when it comes down to it, it can be fairly simple (like so many things in the outdoors, it is immensely gratifying because it often boils down to 'cause and effect');
(3) trapping could easily slip into the realm of a passion for me (and I think for my kids); and,
(4) 10,000 is one hell of a lot of muskrats!

Darl setting a trap is kind of like watching the mechanics of a baseball pitcher on the mound -- it's pretty much automatic;
he could identify the proper location, prepare a cavity to receive the set, engage and place the trap, bait and stake without
 even looking at what he was doing (his skinny skills proved to be equally hardwired as I watched him later in the day)

Most of the sets utilized were "leg holds" but Darl
couldn't resist setting a conibear when
presented with the perfect opportunity
I shadowed Darl for a meager 18 sets (out of ~250 he set for the entire week). That meant we checked 18 traps that he set the day before, recovered 18 muskrats (yep, we batted 1.000!), and placed 18 new sets to be checked the following day.

Darl's experience and technique insure that the animals are killed quickly and humanely. And while the fur trade continues to struggle to rebound from an artificial over-supply (thanks to hundreds of millions of farm-raised mink introduced into the trade from China about a decade ago), every animal is carefully handled and fully utilized.

As the balance of the photos below demonstrate, a 3-4 pound healthy muskrat has a beautifully rich and amazingly soft pelt. It is truly a renewable natural resource. Darl works through the largest and oldest fur buyer in North America (up on the Hudson Bay) and if everything works out just right, he stands to make about $3-$3.25 per animal this season. Considering that he trapped and skinned 152 rats over the course of the week -- and that he still has to "flesh" (remove fat) and stretch each pelt before selling to his buyer (sometime in March), he is not doing this for the money. He does it because he loves it -- the entire process . . . from the early mornings to the full days, to the anticipation of what the new dawn will bring. As a 60-something, he enthusiastically admitted that he still lies awake at night retracing his day's efforts, restless in anticipation of which traps will bear out. Pretty cool.

Hair color ranges from reddish blond to brown and even to black; condition, color, and proper presentation are all
keys to maximizing price on the market

One day's haul (left), lying outside to allow for further drying after being individually towel dried with a bath towel;
a freshly skinned muskrat (right) received a few more hours of fan-assisted air drying before being rolled and frozen for
further processing after the trapping season closes (for most species, by the end of February in Ohio)

Aside: To read more about why all this effort helps us from a management perspective, check out an article we published last spring. Darl worked 12+ hour days for five straight days (not including the time to mobilize and demobilize from his home a couple hours east). He concentrated on just 60 acres of wetland at Standing Rush. He was obviously very successful, but there are plenty more muskrats even in those waters. The only thing that stopped him was a quick freeze. Open water or safe "walking ice" present ideal conditions, but trapping is tough when we're stuck in between as we are now. We hope he'll be able to come back sometime in February to continue his efforts. He'd start by concentrating on dike banks, another area (besides dens) that unfortunately tend to draw muskrats in concentrated numbers. If he comes back, I hope to be able to get back out there with him. Still so much to learn.