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Notes On Mink Trapping
by
Rob F. Sanderson

           Mink taken on the whole are not easy animals to trap. When coon and fox were worth more money than mink, a lot of trappers did not give much attention to mink, taking only those that came along and asked to be caught. But now that mink pelts have become highly valuable while other furs have declined to fractions of former values, a lot of trappers are getting highly interested in his minkship.

           A good mink trapper has many advantages. He can go right on tacking dollars to his stretching boards in snowy mid-winter when other furbearers have denned. The animals are light to carry and need not be skinned on the line. The pelt is very clean and easily handled. And mink are smart enough so that, no matter what the trapping pressure, they get adjusted to it and there are usually enough of them at large to be profitable to a trapper who knows his mink psychology.

           I caught my first mink in 1931. From the beginning I had great pleasure studying his clever ways and collecting his silky pelt. I preferred them to coon or fox; mink were to me the most important furbearer long before the current fashion rage put such a high bounty on his pelt. With this in mind, I would like to draw a few general observations on the taking of mink. Because of considerable differences of opinion held by successful trappers operating the same area, the information is offered in the spirit that the reader may sort it over, accept what he wishes, and leave the rest.

           The mink is highly muscular, unbelievably quick, and has a smooth-furred foot with a gradual taper. As a result, a high percentage of mink pull out of traps after being caught. Different professional trappers recommend anything from a number 1 to a number 4. For my own part I could never understand a trapper who will pay two dollars for a beaver trap and then refuse to pay a third that much for a good mink trap, when beaver are worth much less than a good mink.

           I keep a few number 1 traps around to set in places that are too small for a larger trap. However I am cautious to see that trap works fast and easily, and at the least sign of spring weakness either put in stiffeners or double the springs. In covering a number 1 great care must be used to prevent even light material from clogging the jaws and allowing a pull-out.

           Most good mink trappers accept the number 1 ˝ as a standard mink trap, and they are satisfactory for water trapping where the trap does not need much cover. For trapping mink on land after the freezes have set in, I prefer the number 2. When wet trap cover becomes frosted, or a trap is covered by light re-frozen snow, a number 2 is not too large. A lost mink pelt will buy three dozen of the best mink traps.

           Water sets are theoretically preferred over land sets. No matter how rusty or how carelessly handled, mink cannot smell a trap set under water. A large share of trap-shy mink who grew wise by losing a few toes in weak traps are caught in water sets. Many mink are caught in uncovered underwater traps, but I maintain that if a mink can see a crawfish or a frog underwater, he can also see a trap. Whenever possible the trap should be staked to drown by a long chain or sliding wire. If a drowning set is not possible, consider using a larger sized trap and fasten it so the swivel will not become fouled in brush or grass. If the swivel becomes inoperative mink have a knack for twisting out unless promptly removed.

           However, water sets are difficult to keep in order. Except in the smallest streams fall rains are apt to cause erratic fluctuations in water levels. Such rises and falls are a heavy burden upon the already overworked trapper who must, in addition to all the other responsibilities of the trapline, move his sets up and down every few days to keep them in the proper water depth. Despite all the most eager trapper can do, during the changing water levels many sets will be out of order part of the time. Another headache of the water trapper is early freezing; many mink are alive today by grace of a thin platform of ice over the trap. So under changing adverse conditions a water trapper finds it difficult to run long lines as easily as a trapper who sets a large share of his traps on land.

           Land sets do take a longer time to make, but once made they require less attention. This past season a three foot rise of water in my locality left me entirely to land trapping for a couple of weeks. By using a little extra care mink can be taken successfully on land. To catch experienced mink on land the trap should be free of rust and well cleaned. A light coating of wax is an aid in preventing rust and eliminates a lot of trap cleaning.

           For the trapper’s purpose there are two separate classes of mink. The inexperienced yearling and the sly old timer are two different creatures in the matter of getting their toes pinched. I have caught yearling mink on land in an uncovered rusty trap, and I have seen old timers tracks dodge around a blind set trap covered with two inches of fresh snow (probably smelled rust). Last fall I was trapping for a big mink that had me upset because he was so clever

           In running along a trail he would run on one side-no doubt all the traps he had encountered were in the middle. He had a knack of passing over traps, missing them by less than inches, without apparently knowing they were there. One morning I found his tack on a very light skiff of snow, traveling toward a dry trail set where I had nipped him in a 1 ˝ about three weeks earlier. He had come within six inches of the trap, stopped, and circled about twenty feet.

           Finally, after he had given me high blood pressure all fall, I handcuffed him three days before the season closed. His right hind foot shook hands with a number 2 set in a dry trail, a clean but unwaxed trap set about ten days before he came along. Several of his toenails were missing and from the way he was working at twisting out, he would not have been there the second day after being caught, even though the swivel was working freely.

           Whether the blind set or the bait set is best is a perpetual source of discussion among trappers. For yearling mink the bait set is effective if kept fresh. Keeping the bait changed and fresh at any large number of sets is not only an annoyance to a busy trapper, but every bait change leaves human scent around the set. On my own line I make a few strategic bait sets the first two weeks of the season. After that I figure the biggest share of uncautious mink have been caught off.

           In using bait there are two general precautions. The bait should not be too large, and it should be out of sight. A small, bloody piece about the size of a fresh muskrat or rabbit leg is plenty large enough. As to how far it will attract fall mink, conditions have to be just right to call a mink across a twenty-foot stream. A well-prepared lure will attract mink, but not to the extent the right lure will attract fox. Lure is especially good for the yearlings. There is too much lure being used by amateurs who daub it around crude sets, and after investigating a couple of these sets that no self respecting old buck would be seen within ten feet of, a mink gets wise and associates the lure with a trap.

           My observations lead me to suspect that any bait or lure tends to make an old mink trap suspicious. He is much more apt to bounce right into a blind set without a suspicion, than he is a trap that has been baited and scented. If I think I have a location the mink will come right over anyway, I do not decorate it with bait or lure. On the other hand, occasionally a trapper will find an ideal location where the mink are passing or crossing frequently, but affording no place for a blind set. A bait set here may yield a pelt or two that otherwise might have missed the stretching board.

           A trapper with a good line of blind dry sets out is pretty well set for the season. Using water sets in the minority, he does not have to knock himself out raising and lowering them, and a low percentage of bait sets doesn’t cause too much bother keeping baits fresh. Setting with an eye to the future, many of the land sets can be arranged where an average snow will not put them out of business. With this kind of a line a trapper can cover a lot of country and is set for all kinds of weather.

           The mink in the fall is more of a land animal than is generally suspected. This is because usually the only place his tracks are seen at this time of year is along streams. If light snows came two months early once in a while, many persons would get a surprise following mink tracks. Mink spend a lot of time in early fall hunting through woods and marshes, and the upland hunting for mice and birds and other creatures is then excellent. In the early part of the season I have caught many mink in dry ditches, trails, and paths far from water.

           Before cold weather mink use holes very little. Much of the darting in and out of every hole that they do after snowfall is in search of food. Since the food animals do not use these holes much until after cold weather, neither do mink. As a rule, early mink have no set dens, but curl up and sleep under thick marsh grass or any convenient place along their route. Mink are often abroad on cloudy days; I have seen dozens of them in late summer and early fall.

           During September and October the yearling mink may still make quite a fuss around the home den. By the time trapping season arrives they are usually gone and often do not return until cold weather, when they are apt to visit the old den occasionally. I seldom trap at these dens, but not because I agree with the common belief that one mink trapped at such a den will scare the others away-my theory is that the other mink are not around anyway.

           Last fall I carefully set four traps around a particularly likely den where a litter of mink had been reared and used regularly at least well through September. I never caught one mink there although I took three mink in traps set within a mile of the den. I am inclined to think this idea of not trapping the home den got started in this way: trappers setting a trap there and being lucky enough to catch one mink who visited the old den by accident and not by habit, reset the trap and caught no more, concluding that he must have frightened the others away. If the same trappers caught one or two more of the litter in sets nearby, they concluded this was the best way to catch the litter, which of course it is.

           Habits of mink vary widely. Females and younger mink often have fixed den areas and may not travel over a couple of miles from these dens, covering the same route every second or third night. Old males have much longer routes which sometimes take five or ten days to cover, but they are not the hard travelers that many would have us believe. The average old male travels until he has caught his food for the night, then plays around somewhat aimlessly before denning up for the day. In heavy snows the mink will stop at the first good den he finds a square meal, and if his victim is a rabbit or other large animal he may den up there a couple of days. This twelve miles a night legend got its start from trappers following hungry mink on a very light snow. When pickings are slim, the mink naturally may have to go a long way to catch his daily rations

           The average nightly run of a traveling mink I would estimate at three to four miles. I have known them to loaf around a half mile of stream for a couple of nights, and with good hunting a mink often stays about a limited area for two or three days. He may then move on and be away for over a week. Though he has quite a long route upstream and down, he covers it by using plenty of time, not speed.

           These old mink are suspicious creatures and it is a mistake to try and crowd them into a trap. Too many guide sticks will alarm them; it is better to set two traps. Rubberized gloves which you hang out in the air at night and washed off during the day are excellent to handle traps with. If a trap breaks the skin on a mink’s leg, replace it with a clean trap. Do not come closer than necessary when running sets

           The easiest mink trapping is on smaller branch streams. Here the mink has less choice of route, there are more tributary spring runs, the water level is more apt to be stable, and there are apt to be fewer muskrat trappers. Unless I find a really excellent place to set for rats, I seldom put in a trap for them. If a trapper figures on a season average of one mink to every three or four traps, he has to catch about six rats in each trap he does not set for mink in order to come out even. Of course, some water trail sets will take both mink and rats-I refer to sets made exclusively for rats.

           The most difficult mink trapping is on larger streams. Too much room in general makes blind sets difficult, and changing water levels make wet sets a constant headache. Muskrat sets can be made to float, but this is harder with mink sets. On most large streams there are always narrow sloughs and concentrated cover along parts of the shore where effective sets are possible. It is well to have a few good sets placed about the mouths of all tributary streams since mink like to visit these, and high water on the main stream often drives mink back up the feeder streams.

           In mapping out a line I try to select strategic coverage with permanent sets that are to remain all season. Besides these I have a certain number of transient traps that I move around according to conditions. Once set, if a trap remains in working condition I do not move it unless I need it somewhere else. I have caught too many mink in traps of this kind that I had the good luck not to move.

           Preseason work is important. Too much left until the last minute usually results in slipshod procedure. As the season approaches a lot of last minute details come up and all possible preparations should be made in advance. On a foot line it is important to get traps distributed along the line; even with an auto line it is a good idea if you use land sets as traps riding in cars pick up exhaust and tobacco smells and need a few days to air out.

           To catch large numbers of mink, sets must be well chose, carefully made, and spread out over considerable ground. Fifty traps set ten each to five creeks are better than a hundred traps on one stream. Mink are none too plentiful anywhere and a trapper has to move around a bit to fill his fur shed with a nice collection of mink pelts. I don’t worry about catching all the big fellows on the line, for they are part of next year’s seed. It is better to just skim the cream off a larger area.

           Skill in trapping mink is the result of time and study. It is not only knowing how to put in effective sets of the kind used by professionals, but an intimate knowledge of mink habit as well. This means mastery of blind sets, of selecting a place that the mink will pass over and put his foot down on the two-inch trap pan. There is nothing about mink that the serious mink trapper can not afford to know. I wish I could give young trappers some deadly killer set that would pinch every wiley old mink on their line. That was what I looked for when I first started out, but after a couple of years I realized I was going to have to do most of it by myself

           The most mink will continue to be taken by the best trappers. Real understanding of mink can be acquired by a man willing to study mink habits not only during fur season, but the year around. It will take a trapper quite a few years at least to accomplish an equivalent proficiency if the only study he gets is the thirty days more or less of good trapping weather at the forepart of each season.

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob