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1200 words
Submitted by-
Rob F. Sanderson
724 Edgewater,
Portage, WIS

Aquatic Acrobat: The Mink
Rob F. Sanderson

          The mink is a deft aquatic acrobat. On very dull days I have seen him climbing up and then sliding down a steep bank into the water like a small otter.

          Usually his wanderings are nocturnal and unless you recognize his tracks along the soft stream shores you won’t know he is your outdoor neighbor. Incessant nomads, you may see the tracks of an individual mink only long intervals apart at a given place. One old mink that returned to my hunting grounds every two or three weeks, I tracked for ten miles on new snow without overtaking him.

           Except during mating season (late winter) mink usually travel alone. But during this period and in the summer before the families have separated, their tracks are often visible in pairs or trios.

           Mink are apt to be anywhere there is running water, from the smallest New England rill to the mighty Mississippi. He is equally adaptable to Oklahoma or Ontario. Streams having many drift piles, washed-out tree roots, overhanging banks and abandoned muskrat dens, are his favorite haunts. His pet sport is slipping his slender body in and out of old dens and driftwood jams.

           The animals vary greatly in size. I have taken specimens measuring as long as forty-two inches overall, and as short as seventeen inches. The extremely large pelts come from old dog mink with coarse, reddish pelts of less value than the dark, fine fur of smaller specimens. Very slender and streamlined, their weight ranges from two and a half to five pounds, with three pounds being a good average.

           Shore legs long-coupled, the mink travels arch-backed at a tireless graceful bound, something like a squirrel. A man or dog can easily out-run him in a straight chase, but he is such an agile dodger that he can usually escape from all but the most experienced dogs by running between the canine’s legs and changing directions frequently until he can escape to water. Once in water he is safe for he can stay submerged for long periods.

           Deep winter snows are extremely tiring to the short-legged traveler, who evades them by retiring to his Riviera, under the ice where temperatures are mild and equable. The water level invariably falls after ice forms on streams, leaving air pockets along the shore. Under the ice the mink does most of his traveling and food gathering by day.

           A mink’s food depends on his environment. Fish is a staple item and frequently his dung is composed of nothing but scales from small fish. Cottontail rabbit is a much-sought food. A mink knows every borrow on his route and on every passing pokes his sharp nose in, if not going all the way through. As most of a mink’s kill is in burrows where he corners the animal as does his dry-land brother the weasel, his depredations are not much in evidence.

           One winter afternoon I had a curious experience as I was walking along a sandy stream bank that had been softened by thawing snow. My left foot suddenly gave away, falling a full foot and a half into a loose soil. I have caved in a muskrat burrow.

           Reaching my gloved hand along the passage. I felt a soft object and pulled it to the surface. It was a medium sized muskrat apparently killed but a few hours before, and in skinning the animal found mink fang marks in its neck. Mink kill many of these animals, and dispatch all muskrats found alive in traps, often eating enough to spoil the fur. Many trappers use muskrat flesh for biting mink traps.

           During summer months when the mild weather allows inland game to desert their winter burrows, mink live mostly on water foods. Small fish are staple, with crawfish, frogs, and other water life contributing. Once in Ontario I watched a mink fishing for crawfish. He would walk carefully on his hind legs, stretching he would pause, plunge down suddenly and come up well splashed holding a squirming crawfish in his narrow jaws. Refusing to eat in the open, he bounded to the protection of an overhanging rock.

           Except for extremely cold snaps mink do not hibernate in winter. Five days is the longest I have known them to stay denned although they often stay in a burrow two or three days during severe cold and snow if they happen to have caught food there, staying until the flesh is consumed. Some people I have talked with claim they know mink to have stayed in dens two or three weeks. This is because they have tracked the animals into dens, which have underwater exits, and did not see mink tracks coming out for a long time. It is through these burrows having both land and water exits that a mink commutes from under ice to dry land when bitter cold has frozen all the open water.

           Mink will clean out a whole chicken house in one night and frequently duck hunters in camp had trouble with the blood thirsty little animals killing their penned live decoys. At times like these, or when they have been camping on your favorite trout stream all summer, you may want to set a steel trap for the rascals.

           Mink pelts are prime (well furred and pink colored pelt flesh) about mid- November in the north and a month or so later further south. Blue spots on the pelt side or loose hair on the fur side is a sign of un-primness.

           Take a size one and a half trap and follow along the stream shore until you come to a natural spot where driftwood and a high bank or other obstruction narrows the ledge of shallow water along shore to an eight-inch gap. Sometimes drifting logs can be re-arranged to make an excellent natural passage. Where a rock or tree forces mink tracks into the shallow water is a favorite site of expert mink trappers. It is always best to set the trap under water, as then sly mink cannot smell either the iron or human odor. Fasten the trap chain to a stake driven into the stream bottom below water level, and cover the trap and any freshly barked stake exposure with water soaked leaves.

           To skin, make a slit across the hind legs from foot to foot, down the tail, and peel off like a slip-on sweater. The removed skins will be like a long mitten. Place the pelt fur side inward on a half inch thick drying board five inches wide at the butt and tapering thirty inches to a blunt point. The tail and rear legs can be held taut with tacks until the entire pelt dries in a cool place. When it will hold its own shape off the stretcher, you can either sell it for enough to buy a half case or more of duck loads, or have it tanned into a choker for your wife.

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob