Minnesota Trappers Association
Andy's Tracks and Trails

Stories about fur-bearing animals by Andy Shoemaker

District_6_-_Andy_Shoemaker

Feature Stories

Minks
Fresh tracks in a two by two bounding pattern were right in front of me on the creek ice.  A mink?  It had to be.  (Photo Rright)
Yet I’d never seen mink tracks before.  Heck, I’d never even seen a mink before!  The tracks were checking out every bank hole along that creek and going under the ice anywhere it could gain access to the water.  I tried to remember what I’d read in Fur-Fish-Game magazine articles, and A.R. Harding’s Mink Trapping book.  What else could it be?  I felt certain it had to be a mink.

Mink tracks in snow, two by two bounding pattern. (Photo Left)
I’d just chopped into muskrat huts and set traps in them on a small frozen pond which drained into the creek.  I was down to my last trap, a Victor #1 long spring.  The location with the most sign was a dry bank hole hidden in tall grass along the creek.  The couple inches of snow on the ground showed multiple tracks in and out.  I pulled cat tail fuzz from a stalk and placed it at the entrance.  The trap was placed on the fuzz, with more added to cover the trap.  I tossed a bit of snow over the set, to blend it.  The trap chain was wired to a nearby tree.  Set complete.
Walking home, all I could think about was catching a mink!  I was going to read everything I could that evening on mink trapping.  At the dinner table, I told my parents I was going to catch a mink; that I’d found fresh tracks on a creek.  My dad, a city guy not educated in the ways of wild animals, laughed and said that mink live “way up north”.  Certainly, there wasn’t any in the City of White Bear Lake.  
That evening, 8 to 10 inches of snow fell.  The December morning was clear and cold.  I checked all rat huts.  Nothing.  No animal tracks were found anywhere on the pond ice.  I was discouraged as I followed my path onto the creek.  Fresh tracks, bounding two by two and heading towards my bank hole set!  Suddenly, I wasn’t cold anymore and picked up my pace.  As I neared the set, I could see the grass near the entrance was packed down and disturbed, and the trap chain was pulled tightly into the hole.  My heart was pounding!  
I carefully tugged on the trap chain.  It tugged back!  I didn’t want to lose my prize before I had it, so I pulled slowly, gently, on the trap chain.  All at once the critter came out of the hole and made a sound I could only describe as an ear-piercing scream!  It was so loud that I was sure anyone inside homes blocks away would hear it and call the local Police.  I finally calmed down enough that I was able to collect my prize, a beautiful female mink!
That experience 50 years ago taught me several lessons that I would never forget and catching my first mink ensured that I would be a trapper for the rest of my life!
For a few years, I tried to replicate my above set for catching mink.  At times successful, I found that blind setting a dry bank hole after freeze up might work, but just as easily might not, and it was time consuming to try and find similar locations.  
If I was going to catch more mink, I needed to learn a lot more about them, to understand what makes a mink a mink!
Mink are land based, semi-aquatic predators, averaging 2 – 4 pounds, 22 – 36 inches in length.  Male “Buck” mink will be larger than females.  Prime pelts are thick and shiny with fine underfur, covered by longer guard hairs.  Wild mink colors range from light brown to almost black.  Tail fur is darker than body fur.  In some areas, mink may have unusual pelt colors.  This can often be traced back to escapees from past mink ranches in the area.  Mink often have a white chin strap, or white coloration between legs.
Buck and two females, size comparison (Photo Left)
Mink have 5 toes on each foot, with short, sharp claws.  I have observed mink climb right up a vertical tree, just like a squirrel, yet most of their time is spent on the ground or in the water.  Mink breed in the late winter/spring.  Members of the weasel family, they experience a delayed implantation of the embryo, but not nearly as much delay as marten and fisher.  Young mink “kits” are born blind, helpless, in a den dug by the female, or taken over from muskrats.   Four to six kits are an average litter.  Within eight weeks, kits can be hunting with the female, and by fall are adults on their own.  Male mink are aggressive animals and have been known to kill young mink and even adult females.
That scream my first mink produced is a common tactic mink use when alarmed.  Thought to startle larger predators, it may cause the release of the captured mink.  It sure startled me!
 

Where are they found?

Mink are abundant in Minnesota.  They can be found in lakes and streams, ponds and rivers, swamps and bogs, from farm country to northern forests.  Almost every body of water has mink visiting it.
Mink can also be quite terrestrial, and under certain conditions, can be found well away from water.  When deep powder snow covers the ground, mink will often leave defined waterways and hunt in fields and forests for rabbits, mice, and voles.  I have found mink tracks a mile from water.  Every few years I find mink tracks on my property in winter, yet the nearest water is more than a half mile from my home.  Over the years, I’ve taken a few mink in upland weasel boxes, too.

Mink visiting our home, mid summer. (Photo Rigjt)
Some of my favorite mink trapping locations are grassy stream banks, culverts, bridges, anywhere a feeder creek enters a larger stream or river, and any permanent open water areas in winter.  Think funnels.  The closer they naturally come to your set, the better!
 
Male mink from rock cubby, on drowner.    (Photo Left)
What do they eat?
The easy answer is anything the mink can overpower.  Carnivores and opportunists, they do have favorite foods at certain times of the year.  Mink love crayfish, frogs, fish, mice and voles, rabbits, birds, and certainly muskrats.  Trout congregating in a pool on a trout stream will be a hotspot.  Crayfish and creek chubs below a culvert, minnows congregating.  Frog migrations attract mink.  Nesting birds are targeted.  Winter muskrat huts will show mink tunneling, to hunt rats and gain under ice access.  My experiences tell me that buck mink tend to take larger prey more often than female mink do.
Mink and muskrat in body grip trap. (Photo Right)
Mink Predators?

Although mink are aggressive and have an “attitude” they are relatively small animals and must worry about predators.  Eagles, hawks, and owls all prey on mink. Last winter while loading gear after trapping muskrats on a frozen marsh, I mentioned to a trapping partner how I was surprised not to see any mink tracks.  Almost as if on cue, a Bald Eagle flew overhead with a mink in its talons.  We both laughed and said now we know why.   

Fox and Coyotes will take some, Bobcat and Fisher too.  Young mink will fall to large turtles in summertime, yet another furbearer in my area certainly takes more.  Otter kill mink, mainly because they are competition for the same foods.  Just as coyotes kill fox.  I’ve had mink caught in traps torn apart by otters, and found mink killed by otters on frozen marshes, without being eaten.
Yet with proper food sources and overhead cover, mink will not only survive, but can be found in abundance.  Another concern, polluted waters carrying contaminants can build up in mink over time, making them incapable of reproduction, or just outright killing them.  It’s probably a bigger concern than predation.  I’ve found metro area mink populations to be far higher now than in the 1970’s and 80’s.  Cleaner environment hopefully?
 
Where to scout for mink sign?

Tracks are more easily observed in snow.  Learn to recognize the size of mink tracks, and their track patterns.  Mink “in a hurry” will leave the two by two track pattern, as the back feet meet the front feet prior to the next bound.  Bounds can be two feet apart or more for a large buck, closer for females.  Individual footprints can vary from nickel to quarter sized. 

Mink and coon tracks in snow  (Photo Left)
If a mink is investigating an object, it will slow down to a walk, or “lope.”  This is usually an angled line of four footprints.  Sometimes only three show up as the footprints can run together.  Mink have five toes on each foot, but sometimes only four toes can be distinguished in track patterns.  The best places to look for summertime scouting is when water levels drop, leaving a muddy shoreline along streams and lakes.  Look near hollow logs, on sand bars, under bridges and in culverts.
 

Mink tracks in mud, along stream  (Photo Right)

Mink droppings are small, one to three inches in length, pencil diameter, and usually pointed on both ends.  Contents of the droppings can vary, based on diet and time of year.  Crayfish claws, fish scales are often noted, but fur of various sorts is seen, especially in fall and winter.  Look for droppings on road culverts, docks, prominent rockpiles at the water’s edge.

 
Mink dropping on rock near culvert  (Photo Left) Although faint, mink trails can be discerned in grass along streams.  Often similar to otter “crossover” spots, predictable mink trails can be found leading to a culvert, field drain tile, around obstructions, or even underwater, where objects force a hunting mink under or around an obstruction (think protruding rocks, points, stumps, under logs).  Sometimes these are noticed by hard packed soil, or sand, on an otherwise mucky bottom.
 
Drowned mink caught in pocket set  (Photo Right)

Another type of sign to scout for, in winter, is holes in snow drifts and muskrat huts.  Used as access under the ice.  These are sometimes found with slide marks in the snow where mink come out from under the ice, roll in the snow to dry their fur, then continue activities above the ice.  Like otter slides, but much smaller.  At the entrances to holes in the ice, blood, scales, fish and frog parts may be left on the ice. 

I once followed multiple winter mink tracks from a hole in the ice, to a nearby hollow log along a marsh.  I looked in the hollow log and saw hundreds of frogs, packed inside.  Mink, like weasels, are surplus killers.  As a trapper, that knowledge can be used to your advantage.
 
What equipment to catch mink?           

For trappers just starting out, the variety and volume of equipment available for mink trapping is truly amazing, compared to decades ago.  Various foot traps, both long spring and coil spring, body grips, tube traps, colony traps, live traps, even snares are effective for taking mink.   

When targeting mink, I prefer a 1 ½ coil or similar sized trap at a baited pocket set with open water.  Once freeze-up comes, blind sets, colony traps in culverts and narrow spots, and body grips are used.
Colony trap catch, mink and muskrat   (Photo Left)

Foot traps are double jawed and/or laminated, to hold better and prevent paw damage.  I like a double pan posts instead of single.  Single posts get larger after-market pans.  They work great!  Try them.    Remember to keep foot traps in good working order.  Mink are extremely light footed.  Rusty traps and pan posts will cost you catches.  Keep them dyed/waxed or filed down smooth so pans fall very easily. 

Most areas I mink trap in will have raccoon or otter present, so a responsible trapper must anchor for the largest possible target animal on their trapline.  Most of my sets get disposable earth anchors or drowning cable.  Rebar and fiberglass rods are used on private property or areas where theft is not a problem.  Mink will drown easily in shallow water, yet a coon or otter will not.  Drowning wires quickly dispatch the catch, as well as hide it, and with multiple pockets together, you can keep your catches separated, so a coon doesn’t eat your mink!  Learn to make them.  It will save you money.  
New trap brackets, clips for attaching traps to fiberglass rods, body grip stabilizers, all help the trapper with making good, fast & efficient sets.  Find what works best for you, become quick at making sets, repeat!  
Useful tips
–          Mink will move extensively during and after a fall/winter storm.  Get sets out before!
–          Right at freeze up, consider the “three zones” for your set.  Partially submerged, fully submerged, or above ice.  Prepare your set accordingly.
–          My best baits – carp, various sucker, bullhead, muskrat.  Fish oil, salmon oil, crayfish oil, or canned sardines applied at the bait help.  Make an oil slick from your bait!  Mink follow it to its source.
–          Mink are drawn to the sound of running water, especially after freeze-up.
–          Minnesota truly has some of the greatest mink trappers ever.  Men with incredible catches, knowledge, and experience.  Purchase some of their advertised books and videos.  It will be some of the best money you ever spend!  
–          Having had three mink as pets for several years, their instinct to investigate every hole is incredible.  Use it to your advantage.  They seldom enter a hole, “straight on.”
–          Mink like to hug banks, walls, edges when hunting/moving.  They try to avoid open areas.  Make sets accordingly.
–          Mink scenting abilities are better than most would think.  I could coax a pet mink out of a snow drift from 20 feet in below zero weather, with a tiny piece of meat.  
–          If a good location, make multiple sets, not just one!
–          My experience shows that mink aren’t afraid of a minor disturbance but become cautious around large ones.
–          My female mink could get caught again and again in a live trap, to be transferred back to a cage.  My two-male mink – a different story.  Maybe twice ever, and then they’d never approach the live traps again.  Seemed like different animal species.
 
Lessons Learned
I mentioned earlier that I learned several lessons from that first mink I trapped.  First, the sound of a mink screech.  Will never forget it!  Second, mink “spray” ranks right up there with skunk, and until I caught my first, I didn’t know they did that!  Third, a good storm really makes mink move.  Fourth, my dad knew absolutely nothing about trapping.  Finally, while walking home with my first mink carried over my shoulder proud as could be, a man from a home a couple blocks away charged out of his house and threatened to hit me, a nine year old, because I killed the mink.  He didn’t even know what it was, but obviously didn’t share my love of trapping.  Welcome to the anti-trapping movement!
Buck mink from baited pocket set, fiberglass stake.    (Photo Right)  
  

By Andy Shoemaker

Weasels
My first encounter with a weasel occurred at the age of 10 or 11.  While I don’t remember exactly how old I was, I do remember the event like yesterday.
 
On my way to check some muskrat traps at a frozen pond in my area, I was crossing a weedy field with a large log/brush pile in the back.  About an inch or two of fresh snow the night before had everything covered in a clean white blanket.  As I approached the brush pile, I noticed small tracks leading in and out of the branches, logs and junk the land owner had discarded over the years.  Curiosity got the best of me and I had to figure it out.  What made the tracks?  
 
The tracks were very small, a two by two bounding pattern, spread more than a foot apart from the previous track.  Tracks showed where the unknown animal had investigated every hole and hollow log, had gone under every old board and into anything it could crawl into.  While following the tracks I began to stand on some of the branches to get a better view when movement caught my eye.  A dark nose, two beady black eyes and a black tipped tail betrayed the otherwise pure white fur covering the critter responsible for all the tracks.  A weasel, or ermine if you will, stood boldly only three feet away from me, and watching my every move!  It did not appear to be frightened, and hissed at me before diving under the snow as I moved closer.  For the next several minutes the weasel played hide and seek with me, disappearing in a flash when I neared, only to reappear seconds later a few feet away.  I was captivated by its quick movements, boldness, and beauty, and I wanted to catch one!
Male (top) and Female (bottom) Short Tailed Weasels
 
Since that first encounter years ago, I have trapped many weasels on my traplines, and observed many more while being outdoors.  I haven’t lost the feeling of excitement when I see one, and am always happy each year to add a few to my trapline harvest.
 
What kind of Weasels are found in Minnesota?
The most common is the Short-Tailed Weasel, called Ermine, when white.  Present in most all Counties of the State, Short Tailed Weasels vary from 7 to 15 inches in length, weighing between 2 and 5 ounces.  Males are larger than females.  The summer coat is tan with white or pale brown underneath and the tail is black tipped.  As days get shorter in the fall, the pelt begins to molt and turn white.  It is said that Short Tailed Weasels have a tail roughly 1/3 the length of their total body.  Short Tails can mate anywhere from late summer to mid-winter.  Like other members of the Weasel family, Short Tails experience “Delayed Implantation” which means that the embryo does not develop right away after mating.  Once the embryo starts to develop, young weasels will be born a month later.  Under ideal conditions, an adult can raise two litters per year.
 
Long Tailed Weasels are the second most common weasel found in Minnesota.  Although they range throughout the State, numbers may vary significantly and they are usually less abundant.  Adult males may be 15 – 20 inches in length including its tail and weigh 7 ounces.  Female long tails will be somewhat smaller.  It is said that the tail of a Long Tail Weasel will be 40% or more of its body length.  Summer coats are similar to Short Tailed Weasels, dark brown or tan with light brown or white belly.  The tail is also black tipped. Track pattern resembles a female mink, but slightly smaller.  
District 6 Trapper Fran Satnik with a Long-Tailed Weasel in 220 body grip from a Bobcat set.
The Least Weasel is our smallest, averaging between 6 – 7.5 inches in length, including tail.  The tail is much shorter than the other two weasel types, usually no more than 25% of total body length, and is not black tipped.  Summer pelts are similar to the other two weasels in coloration.  An unusual fact about the pelt of the Least Weasel is that its white pelt fluoresces under ultraviolet lighting, while the other two weasel species do not.  Records show the Least Weasel was more often found in the north and west portions of the State, but is now uncommon, and has been listed as a “Species of Concern” by the MN DNR.  I have never seen or trapped one.
 
What do they eat?  
Weasels are extremely active animals.  Always on the go.  Because of this, they are always hungry and looking for food.  While capable of taking animals larger than themselves such as rabbits, chipmunks and small birds, most weasels are looking for smaller animals, mainly mice and voles.  Think of them as the world champion mouse hunters.  Weasels are known as surplus killers.  When food is easily available, they will kill far more than they can possibly eat.  When a weasel gets into a pen with young chicks or ducklings, a single animal may kill dozens, and eat only a part of one.
 
Great weasel habitat.  Brush and grass at edge of marsh.
So, where do I find easel sign?
Short Tailed Weasels can be found in a variety of habitats.  First, look for areas with a good population of mice and voles.  Look for the small two by two bounding weasel tracks on the ice in cattail marshes.  Smaller than mink tracks, they often travel from muskrat hut to muskrat hut.  Also, along the marsh edges hunting in and out of the long grass found there.  Most brush piles will show sign of weasels hunting.  Any creek or stream bank that is weedy or has long grass will show tracks, often traveling on the ice.
 
Bush country, with bogs and willow brush will hold good numbers of weasels.  Check blown down trees, old stumps, trash piles, beaver dams, and abandoned beaver lodges for weasel hunting areas.  In the northern forests, look for thick cover and tall grass.  Areas that have been logged a few years earlier will show good populations of weasels when the willows/poplar start growing back.  Blow downs from storm hit areas will see good weasel populations.  They are very capable of climbing trees and leaning logs.  
 
In farming and open country, drainage ditches with grass and weeds will show weasels hunting there.  I seem to find Long Tailed Weasels in the more open country.  Set aside fields, weedy fence lines in open fields, Juniper bushes on hillsides with tall grass beneath them, small groves of trees around abandoned buildings, and County ditches with weeds and water.  Look for anything that narrows the weasel’s movements – pinch points, to make sure they travel close to your set.
Fresh weasel tracks along field road and tall grass.
 
What equipment do I need to trap Weasels?
For those just starting out weasel trapping, two pieces of equipment are most important – a wooden bait box, also called a weasel box, and a snap type rat trap.
 
Weasel boxes can be a variety of shapes, but generally look like an elongated wooden bird house, with sliding or removable top.  The front will have a hole from 1 ¾ – 2” diameter, situated towards the top of the front panel.  The back panel will be either screened, or with a 2” screened in hole, to allow better scent circulation.  The general outside dimensions are 13” long by 6” wide.  Boxes may have a 2 – 3” front overhang, to keep the opening from being plugged with snow.  A hinged or sliding top, or top with duplex nail fitting into a pre drilled nail hole, will secure the top from larger predators yet allow the trapper to open and rebait or remove a caught weasel.  The general purpose is to have a container for trap, bait, and to protect the weasel once caught, from scavengers.  All these boxes are easily made by the trapper, or purchase a weasel box from numerous trapper’s supply dealers.  If you like making things, building plans are available off the Internet.
Interior of Weasel Box, with bait location, trap placement, and weasel catch.  Catch by District 6 Trapper, Andy Schmidt.
 
Traps are usually the snap type rat trap, situated on a wooden base, with swing arm striker bar.  Those with the larger plastic pan seem to work best.  Several brands of plastic base rat traps work well too.  The wooden rat trap fits inside the box, just inside the front panel entrance hole, with bloody bait placed in the rear of the weasel box.  Upon entering, the Weasel will usually step down onto the pan and get hit by the striker bar, quickly dispatching it.  Other options include a variety of foot hold traps, including the #0, #1 and 1 ½ long spring traps, and the smaller #1 jump or coil spring traps.  These traps will usually catch a weasel across the body, quickly dispatching it.  
Number one long spring trap inside weasel box.  Perfect catch, quick dispatch.  Muskrat for bait.  Caught by District 6 Trapper, Andy Schmidt.
A word of caution here, if using the foot hold traps, attach wire or cable to the end of the trap chain and run it outside the Weasel box, anchoring it to a solid object.  Raccoons, Mink, Skunks, Opossums, and other larger furbearers can easily reach into the entrance hole and potentially get caught in the foot trap.  Without being anchored properly, a long tracking and search may be necessary to recover your weasel box and trap!    
 
 
What about bait and lure?
Many different types of bait can be used for weasel trapping.  Rule of thumb – fresh, and bloody will work best.  Beaver, muskrat, rabbit, and venison scraps have all worked well for me.  So has duck livers saved from waterfowl hunting.  One of the problems with bait, especially at very cold temperatures, is that it’s scent will carry less distance.  I have found that the extra oil in beaver fleshing retains scent far longer than lean meat during extreme cold.  I save all my beaver fleshing for bait purposes for a variety of furbearers.  Beaver fleshing mixed with muskrat, or fresh beaver meat works great.
Mid-winter Striped Skunk caught in foot trap placed inside weasel box set.  Trap was wired to nearby tree, securing it, and keeping the skunk from escaping with the trap.
 
In regards to lure, mild weather sets can be improved with Weasel Lure.  Many weasel lures are made with Anise Extract, which weasels are attracted to.  In extreme cold weather I will use a louder call lure a foot or two away from the set.  Once close, they will smell the bait.  Salt can be mixed with the bait to help prevent freezing.  I will use table salt mixed in with the bait container contents.  Seems to work well.
 
Bloody baits can stain the white fur of a caught weasel.  One way to help prevent this is by placing bait into a container inside the weasel box.  Plastic frosting containers from store bought cinnamon rolls or metal cat food containers help keep the bait in one spot, and the box easier to clean once the set is pulled.
 
A rusty striker bar on a rat trap can also stain a prime Weasel pelt.  Wrap the striker bar in electrical tape, or duct tape, and your weasel will not get a rust stained pelt.  
District 6 Trappers, Gavin and Morgan Herschman, with new weasel boxes they just built, ready for setting!
How can a stained pelt be cleaned up?      
After catching a weasel, I will check the entire pelt for blood or urine stains.  After removing it from the trap, I will gently rub it in clean snow near my catch site, to free up any blood that may be on the pelt.  At home I will use cold water to rinse away any blood stains.  The whole weasel will then be placed into a tub of Borax and I will repeatedly brush the fur, using an old toothbrush, to loosen any remaining dirt or blood.  The Borax powder will also dry the fur by absorbing the water left in it.  This works very well on blood stains.  While it can help with urine stains, it may not entirely remove them.  Upon completing its Borax bath, the cleaned weasel is placed into a small zip lock bag and put into the freezer until ready to skin and stretch at a later date.
Problems and Tips
This one’s occupied!
Mice and Shrews will clean out the bait in a weasel box rather quickly.  As a rule, I plan to rebait at least every week. Remember, fresh bait works best.  Warm weather gets new bait multiple times a week.
 
I have sometimes been frustrated with snapped traps, but no catch.  I believe this may occur when a weasel enters the box and sees a mouse or shrew.  Rather than stepping down on the pan, a chase ensues inside your weasel box, firing the trap with no catch.  Not much you can do here.  Foot traps will often require a little more pressure to move the pan down, so if you’re convinced mice and shrews are firing the rat trap, try a foot hold.  
 
When placing weasel boxes on ice, or in freezing/thawing conditions, make sure you put some sticks or dry grass underneath the box so it can be easily removed when pulling the set.  I hate chipping ice in a culvert just to free a set.
 
I have trapped many weasels in locations prior to seeing tracks in the snow.  Also, some snow conditions do not allow a weasel to leave a visible track!  After a while, you just recognize good habitat.  Given my choice, I prefer to set out boxes in areas with fresh weasel tracks.  Catches come quicker!
Tanned furs, including weasel pelts, just back from the Tannery.
Boxes, once built, will last much longer if painted or stained.  Both inside and out.  Also helps prevent blood from being absorbed into the wood and later giving off a foul odor.  
 
If possible, I will face my box opening to the south or west.  On sunny days, the box will absorb heat, melting snow which may block the entrance, and warm the bait, giving off more scent.
 
When building weasel boxes, put the entrance hole up towards the top of the front panel. When a weasel enters, it is dropping with more force, making it more likely to trip the trap pan.
 
My weasel boxes are often placed on my trails to fisher and bobcat sets.  Winter weasel traplines are also great opportunities to scout for fisher, marten or bobcat sign, and locate travel ways and funnels for the larger predators.  Work on winter track identification and reading animal sign, watch how weather changes affect animal movement, experiment with new bait and lures.
 
If you’re looking to extend your trapping season in mid-winter, or you’d like to introduce someone new to trapping, consider a weasel trapline!     
 
by Andy Shoemaker
River Otters
After securing permission to trap a property with beaver, muskrat, mink & coon in abundance, the owner asked that I not trap the cute and friendly otters.  Of all the animals I regularly trap, no other furbearer is so often mischaracterized by people, media and television wildlife shows as the river otter.  Ask any veteran trapper about releasing animals from traps, and almost all will have an exciting otter story or two at the top of their list!
Photo #1 Large male otter
 
Otters are intelligent, aggressive predators.  Streamlined and heavily muscled, their movements can be deceptively fast.  Like a large northern pike or musky in a body of water, the otter is at the top of the food chain in the waters it inhabits and is always hungry.  With strong jaws and a healthy set of teeth, otters make short work of anything they decide they want to eat!
 
 
Photo #2 Adult otter whiskers
 
Adult River Otters grow from 4 to 5 ½ feet in length including a 20-inch tail, and males, which tend to be somewhat larger than females, can exceed 30 pounds.  The average weight is probably in the 15 to 25-pound range for adults.  Feet have strong, sharp claws, are webbed with rubbery foot pads which aid in moving on the ice.  Fur is short, dense and multi-colored, usually a light brown to dark brown color, with gray or grizzled appearance on throat and muzzle.  Long stiff sensitive whiskers cover the otter’s snout, which aid it in capturing prey in murky water.
 
Color variations range from coal black to albino.  Otters have ear and nose canals that close when diving, and nearsighted vision allow otters to see well under water.  Otters have lived more than 20 years in captivity, but in the wild they usually live less than half that.
 
Family groups consist of an adult female otter, with young of the year.  The young tend to stay with the female over the winter and learn locations for reliable food, areas to access water through the ice, and abandoned beaver lodges and bank runs to lay up in.   Males tend to be solitary, or travel in smaller bachelor groups.
Photo #3 Various pelt colors – brown to black
 
Females give birth in the spring to a litter of 4 – 6 pups and will mate again almost immediately after giving birth.  Delayed implantation prevents the development of the young until the female has made it through the worst of winter conditions.  Summers consist of pups learning to swim, dive, and hunt.  People watching “playful” otters are usually seeing behavior that helps otters in capturing or killing their prey.  Wrestling, carrying objects, chasing ducks and geese, fish, frogs and turtles.
 
During the past 10 years in north central Minnesota, several instances of a lone otter or family otter groups have approached and/or bitten people swimming in area lakes (Star Tribune – Island Lake, August 2012).  Most likely a female otter concerned about people getting too near her pups.  Not a good idea.
 
Photo #4 Belly slides of family group of 5 otters on creek ice
 
My experience with watching otters feed is that they will key on animals that they find in abundance.  Frogs grouping up for hibernation in the muck of a pond bottom, crayfish congregating in a pool below a stream culvert, marshes with areas of open ice and numerous muskrat huts, spring sucker runs, etc.  A few years ago, I watched an adult otter feed from a hole in the ice for more than 15 minutes.  It dove every ten seconds or so under the ice, and re-emerged with a fish, frog or crayfish every single time.  Whatever was caught was chewed until gone, at which time the otter dove again.  The cold-water environment otters live in make it have a high metabolism.  They are always hungry during trapping season!
 
 
Photo #5 Carp on river bank from otter
 
A lot of trappers have otters on their traplines, but aren’t aware of it or don’t know what sign to look for.  In summertime, look for tracks, scat or otter toilets, belly slides down river banks, crossovers from one body of water to another, grass twisted up on shorelines (otter rolling) turtle shells in piles in bogs and weedy bays, fish carcasses, trails through grass at roadside culverts.  Some of the sign will not last as long due to humidity and temperature, insects, etc.
 

Photo #6 Belly slides down dry river bank
 
In winter, look for tracks and belly slides in snow, or if before snow, in the frost on lake or pond ice.  My favorite time to scout for otter populations is after the season is closed.  During late February or March, conditions are usually good for visual checks while driving by a location.  Check your lakes, streams and rivers for otter sign in the snow, belly slides, crossovers, toilet areas, and otter holes gaining access to under ice food sources.  Most likely, if present in late winter/spring, otters will be present the following winter during trapping season.  Keep some notes about which watersheds show the most sign, or at what intervals otters are coming through at that location.
 
Photo #7 Crossover from Lake to River with catch
 
Otter droppings and vomit (fish bones/scales) are often deposited in the same locations over and over.  Usually made up of small fish scales and bones, shells and crayfish claws, these otter “toilets” can get quite large, and are always hot spots for catches.
Photo #8 Belly slides on marsh
 
Otter holes can be found in snow drifts, muskrat huts and beaver lodges, lake and river ice, and very often, near beaver dams.  Trappers will note where otters came out from under the ice, rolled in the snow to dry and clean their fur, then return under the ice for hunting or travel.
 
Once you’ve found otter sign on your trapline, how best to catch them?  Narrow your search to natural funnels, pinch points, cross overs, spots that don’t freeze, and moving water.  I used to spend way too much time looking for that “perfect” otter catch spot.  What I’ve learned is that if otters are traveling through, make your own “perfect” spot.  Narrow the stream or creek with brush, branches or a dive under log.  Dig a false beaver run, every passing otter will check it out.  Baited pocket sets with strong foot traps on drowning wires are critical.  Don’t under stake a set as otters will match the biggest coon for power when fighting a trap and don’t succumb to hypothermia as easily as raccoons do.

Photo #9 Close up of otter scat with fish scales
 
On lakes and marshes, water coming in and going out are your “hot spots”.  Look for your natural funnels here, and create your own if none are found.  One thing I don’t understand is many times I’ve found a clean half water-filled culvert running under a road, and every single otter traveling through will go up and over the road, avoiding the culvert.  Other times I’ve found heavily cluttered and partially plugged road cuvlerts, yet every passing otter travels its way through and avoids crossing over the road.
 
Trappers need to be flexible and adjust to the conditions they find along the trapline.  Once the otter hot spot has been found, how do I set it up?
For successful otter trapping, trappers need to think of the three “zones” for the trap they intend to use and the forecasted weather conditions.  If mild with warm temps, all three zones are easily used.  Fully submerged trap, partially submerged trap, or out of water trap.  Many times, I’ve messed up with a great location at a hot spot, finding my partially submerged body grip frozen in and inoperable when otters passed by.  Right at freeze up, the three zones thinking becomes most critical, and often trappers are limited to two zones, fully submerged, or out of the water.
 
 
 
Photo #10 Hole in ice with large otter toilet
 
With blocking and fencing, it does help if a location can be made or adjusted prior to the trapping season.  If the stream is too wide, don’t try to narrow it down to a spot in the middle, for your set.  Put an obstruction in the middle of the stream, and set up body grips to each side of the obstruction.  Remember otters traveling in family groups?  Often a double catch will be waiting.  I notice more refusals when a stream is blocked too much, or doesn’t look natural.  Far less avoidance with a two-trap set up.
 
Another consideration often overlooked by trappers is the water conditions at the set location.  Cloudy or clear?  Otters see very well under water and a bright shiny body grip trap, or one dipped too dark in a bright sandy river bottom with clear water will be noticed and avoided.  I’ve set up different body grip traps for otter trapping in different waters.  Bogs will get body grip traps painted dark or dipped; clear water gets green or tan painted with a camo pattern to be less visible.  Blending with natural materials always helps the set location.  One fully submerged trap near a beaver dam break sat for two weeks without success, even though several otter tracks had come and gone from the pond.  I changed to a darker trap, and wedged abundant cat tails from the pond near the trap to blend, and two otters in a row was the result!
 
 
As far as trap triggers go, I generally set my body grip triggers to the top if the set is designed as a swim through set.  A slide through set will usually get the trigger set on the bottom, depending on weather conditions.  I have not tested circular triggers much to see how they work differently, but plan to run some this winter.  Regardless of trigger set up, make sure triggers are fine-tuned, with as little travel as possible before firing.
For both body grip and foot traps for otters, the more swivels, the better.  Once caught, otters will spin repeatedly, locking up a trap chain very quickly with grass, sticks and mud, especially if the swivels are in poor condition or rusted.  If checking a location for a foot trap set on drowning wire, make sure that logs, sticks and underwater obstructions are completely removed so the trap chain will not entangle on its way down into deep water.  I always carry a folding pruning saw to cut roots and sticks away from the pond bottom.  Works great.
 
Photo #11 District 6 Trapper Mike Herschman with otter caught in 160 body grip in snow hole set. Trap was concealed in dry grass placed in snow drift hole.
 
In my area of East Central Minnesota, otters seem to be drawn to beaver colonies and beaver habitat.  Consistently, one of my best spots to catch otters is at an abandoned beaver lodge, or beaver run.  I will consistently mark abandoned beaver bank runs where beavers have been removed, or have moved on to other locations, prior to trapping otters.  Once I get good walking ice, I will revisit these locations and set up my body grip traps at entrances to the old beaver runs.  I often do this while hut trapping muskrats in December.  Coming and going every day to check rat huts allows me to look for fresh otter sign on a daily basis.  Many times, I’ve been there 4 days or more and never seen otter sign above ice, yet will catch an iced in otter, living in the marsh under the ice and using the beaver runs.  Otters can and do significantly impact muskrat populations in many areas I have trapped.  Part of the answer to where have all the muskrats gone?  There were a lot less otters in my areas 40 years or more ago.  Yet muskrats were extremely plentiful then.
 
Photo #12 Large male otter from old beaver run
 
I have not personally seen evidence of otters preying on beaver populations, but have read that in the far north, it is not unheard of.  In my area of the State, otters and beavers seem to co-exist rather well, and having both in a lake or marsh leaving bubble trails all over under the ice allows muskrats to move about much farther than without them being present.   
 
Other hot spots for otter include small feeder creeks into larger rivers, crossovers on river bends, points on large lakes and islands, especially with grassy banks, and after freeze-up, anywhere with open water.
 
Photo #13 Double on otters in body grips
 
My memory tells me that the majority of my otter catches coincide with a change in the weather.  Specifically fall and winter storms.  Open water, hard freeze, in between, it doesn’t seem to matter.  If we have several days of calm consistent weather, and then the weather reports show a low-pressure system approaching with wind, rain and/or snow accumulation, I want my otter sets to be ready.  Otters seem to really move in such weather.  I also see a trend towards otter moving from smaller water to bigger water, smaller creeks to bigger rivers.  Maybe they don’t want to get locked in to a less than ideal location when the really cold weather hits.
 
Take some time this winter to put some quality sets out, be patient, and hopefully you’ll catch some prime Minnesota Water Wolves!
 
by Andy Shoemaker
Opossum
Photo #1.  Large male Opossum
In the early 1970’s and not yet a teenager, my parents drove me to Lee’s Taxidermy in Prescott, Wisconsin, to sell my small trapping catch to Fur Buyer, Lee Schommer.  Always an adventure for me in those days, I was far more interested in the many animals and pelts present in the basement of Lee’s shop, than I was in what he’d pay me for my furs.
 
Looking over some stretched skins in a bundle lying on his shop floor was a dozen pelts I didn’t recognize.  Stretched somewhat like a muskrat, but much larger and with gray & white fur, I asked Lee, “what are they?”  “Possum,” Lee replied.  Lee said they were from a trapper’s catch in southern Wisconsin, or Iowa, he couldn’t remember which.  Lee was quick to say that “Possum” weren’t found locally.
 
Photo #2.  Stretched Opossum pelts (left front) with gray squirrel, and ermine.  
Throughout the 1970’s I had never seen or caught an Opossum in my home area of East Central Minnesota.  I had never even seen a road killed one in the Metro area.  Having run a number of traplines for fox and coon by the late 70’s, I wondered if I’d ever catch an Opossum.  Never especially valuable, there’s just something about catching the “first” of any species that’s intrigued me and pushed me to learn all I could about that particular furbearer, to help catch it.
 
Opossum, Virginia Opossum, Possum, Grinner, Opie, whatever you call them, Opossum’s have a face not even a mother could love!  White facial fur, a pink nose, black beady eyes, naked ears, and a wide, menacing toothy grin give them a distinctive and almost cartoonish look.  Slow moving and not especially alert, Opossum appear to be dim witted and not very intelligent.  Like Comedian Rodney Dangerfield, they don’t get any respect.  Yet Opossum are survivors and are increasing their range in the US, and in Minnesota.  And they do have a few tricks up their sleeve!     
 
Omnivores, Opossum eat a wide variety of food, which has helped them expand their range northward.  Fruits, grains, insects, worms, birds, eggs and young, mice and carrion, snakes and fish, all make up an Opossum’s diet when available.  Not true hibernators, they will den up in extreme cold, or when deep snow buries available food sources.
Photo #3.  Adult Opossum at the intersection of University and Snelling Avenues, St Paul, MN. Waiting for the light to change?  Photo courtesy of District 6 Trapper, Mike Herschman.
Opossum can vary greatly in size and weight.  Most will be about the size of a house cat, but some are much larger.  Adults will weigh between 4 – 15#, and are close to 3 feet in length, including the furless, prehensile tail.  Pelt color can range from almost all white to almost all black.  Most will have lighter underfur with either gray or black guard hairs.  Fur extending down to the feet is usually dark or black.  Belly fur is usually not as long and thick and often lacks many guard hairs.
 
Opossum have five toes on each foot.  Back feet have an opposable thumb, which aids in climbing and makes Opossum back foot tracks resemble a human hand print, although much smaller.  Claws are strong and very sharp, but not very long.  Track impressions will be 1 – 2” in diameter and have a “star shaped” appearance in soft dirt or snow.  Back foot impressions are often placed directly over the front foot impression, enlarging or changing the track shape.  Opossum movements give the appearance that the animal is waddling as it moves and foot impressions will be spaced 8 – 12 inches apart.  Sometimes in snow, a tail drag mark is observed.  
 
Photo #4.  Opossum tracks in snow.  Back feet cover front foot impression.
Opossum are the only marsupial, or “pouched mammal” found in the US.  Baby Opossum, called “Joeys” are born in the spring and are about the size of a dime.  They crawl into the pouch on the females belly and attach themselves to one of 13 nipples found there.  Joey’s will remain in the pouch for 60 – 70 days, before being strong enough to climb out and ride on the female’s back.  Opossum litters can often contain up to 20 Joey’s, but many do not survive.  In the southern US, Opossum may have two litters per year.  In Minnesota, generally one.  Males do not aid in raising the young.  Females can reproduce at 10 months of age.
Where do I find Opossum?
Solitary and mainly nocturnal, Opossum can be found in urban areas, suburbs, and rural agricultural areas.  Think habitat similar to what skunks like.  Opossum prefer mixed woods with trees large enough to den in, but will use a hollow log on the ground, old woodchuck or fox dens and any shed or outbuilding they can dig under to call home.  I seem to find most in woods with lots of “clutter”.  Dump sites, junk and brush piles, old buildings, rusty machinery scattered about, all provide Opossum with plenty of places to find food or den in.
 
In farming areas, Opossum will occupy old buildings and hay lofts, just as raccoons do.  Large stacks of round hay bales make great den locations and provide mice and birds for them to eat.  In suburban settings, Opossum have learned that homeowners leave cat and dog food dishes in back yards for their pets.  It makes for easy pickings, along with the bird seed from bird feeders that get refilled every day.  In urban areas, Opossum are regular visitors to trash cans, fast food dumpsters, and anyone’s open garage with poorly stored food sources.     
 
For Canine trappers, it often seems that all they have to do is make the perfect coyote set.  An Opossum will surely find it before the coyote does!  There’s a reason for that too.  Opossums have a very good sense of smell, and use that sense to locate carrion/road kill.  While hunting the edges of crop fields, or traveling from a denning location to a hunting location along a farm field road, Opossum will smell the loud lure odors and bait from the coyote set and head straight for it.  Part of the reason so many Opossums are hit by cars on county roads – they smell the odor of an animal previously killed, and get hit by a car while crossing the highway to find it.
Photo #5.  Opossum eating road killed pheasant along highway, late-winter.
What traps should I use?
Although Opossum can get good sized, they are slow moving and do not generate the force of K-9’s or raccoons when caught in a trap.  They are easily trapped and held.  Since catching my first Opossum in 1980, and many in the years after, I have caught and held them in a wide variety of traps.  From #1 single long springs and muskrat sized body grips, up to #3 coil spring coyote traps and 220 sized body grips.  Dog proofs, snares, spray proof skunk traps, and live traps, all have been used to take Opossum and all work well in different situations.
 
Since I generally don’t target Opossum during fur season, many of my catches have come while K-9 or coon trapping.  Dog proof traps have proven to be excellent at catching and holding Opossum.  They easily dig out the bait from the tube type traps, get caught, and are sleeping when I check the set.  Sets along raccoon trails entering crop fields, and baited with any of the various dog proof coon baits will produce. Opossum caught will be waiting for you.  I’ve never had an Opossum pull out a rebar stake or various types of earth anchors, yet all traps need to be secured well for the largest animal you could possibly catch at your set location.
 
When removing Opossum in an urban or suburban setting, remember that an Opossum set is also likely to take a skunk, if present.  For this reason, chose your traps wisely.  “No Spray” skunk traps work well on Opossum, and I have taken many with them.  However, I’ve caught many Opossums in other types of traps that would have never fit in the “No Spray” trap.  They were just too big!  Live traps of various sizes and types easily take Opossum and allow for easy removal. Just be prepared to deal with the consequences of an unexpected skunk when doing nuisance work.
 
Photo #6.  Large Opossum in live trap.
Photo #7.  Dark colored Opossum caught in body grip trap.  Trail along stream.  
.

Bait and Lure
 
Possessing an excellent sense of smell, Opossum truly follow their nose to food sources!  Another reason it’s a good idea not to use too much loud lure at a K9 set, especially in early season when Skunks and Opossum are very active.  When targeting Opossum with Dog Proof traps, I’ve had most success with sardines or an oily fish-based bait.  Any of the various paste type K9 baits will attract Opossum, as will bacon or fryer grease.  Chicken or duck bones work great in live traps.
Photo #8.  Opossum caught in a Dog Proof trap.  Securely held.
Opossum do not seem to be bothered by Skunks or Skunk spray.  I’ve seen Opossum eating dead skunks and I’ve even seen an Opossum walk up to an animal carcass where a Skunk was actively feeding.  The Skunk raised his tail, stamped his feet, even sprayed, and it didn’t matter.  The Opossum just kept walking up to the carcass and eventually moved the skunk off it, having the carcass to itself.  Skunk scent, or long-distance call lures will also aid in attracting Opossum to a set location.
Photo #9.  Large aggressive Opossum on a carcass pile, mid-winter.  Wouldn’t even leave the carcass when I approached.
 
 
 
 
 
Pelts and Pelt Handling
Opossums are easy to skin, flesh and stretch.  Possessing a beautiful pelt, I think many Opossum pelts are not appreciated because they are caught in the first couple weeks of trapping season when they are not yet fully furred out.  Case skinned, fur in, and easy to handle with both wire or wood stretchers, the most important thing to remember is not to over flesh the pelt.  Early season caught pelts fleshed too much will show guard hair roots coming through on the hide.  Some of these will fall out during the tanning process.  Belly hide is very thin, tears easily, and most trappers cut off the females pouch area before stretching, as part of the inspection window.
Photo #10.  This one would rather fight than run.    
If targeting a high-quality Opossum pelt, harvest them during a mid to late winter warm spell.  Carcass piles can attract Opossums and well-established trails from denning locations to the bait make for easy trail set catches.  Remember your trap set back distance if baits are exposed.  Most Opossum will have a large amount of fat on the hide this time of the year.  Keep the pelt cold when fleshing and it scrapes off easily.  The hide will dry a white color, and both underfur and guard hairs will be noticeably thicker and longer.  I wipe any remaining grease off the hide as it dries.
 
Photo #11.  Fleshed and stretched prime winter Opossum pelt.Quality hide and fur.
 
 
Facts and Tips
Opossum have a formidable set of teeth!  When the mouth is closed, the canine teeth can often be seen extending below the mouth line.  An adult will have 50 teeth, more than any other North American land animal.  Opossum have an unusual skull shape.  Although they may be of similar size to a small raccoon, their brain is only 1/5th the size of a raccoon.
 
Opossum prey heavily on ground nesting game birds, waterfowl, and song birds.  They eat the adults, if possible, but also any young or eggs in the nest.  Abundant Opossum greatly impact nesting birds.
 
Most Opossum don’t live very long.  Two years or so in the wild.  In captivity, four to five years is normal.  Fox, coyotes, bobcats, eagles, hawks and owls will prey on Opossum.  Many are hit/killed by cars on roads.  
 
I have caught many Opossums showing injury from frostbite/freezing.  Ears that were extremely small, feet that were missing toes from frostbite, damaged tails.  Northern Minnesota’s cold temps will be the major roadblock to Opossum colonizing that area.  I have noted that Opossum numbers go way down following a severe winter.  After a couple years, they seem to rebound and I start seeing many of them again.  
 
The phrase, “Playing Possum” comes from a physical reaction Opossums get when startled or frightened.  They fall over as though dead.  Breathing slows, eyes will close.  I saw this close up many times hunting with Coon Hounds.  A female hound of mine hated Opossum.  She would not go out of her way to trail them, but if one was close to where she was hunting, she attacked it aggressively, picking it up in her mouth, shaking it.  I’d leash her, pull her away from the Opossum, and continue hunting.  I’d look back and see the Opossum slowly lift its head, look around, then race off in the other direction.  I wonder how it works with fox and coyotes?
 
Although they can carry many parasites, most Opossum are relatively healthy.  Thought to be slightly resistant to rabies, Opossum are resistant to venoms and poisons from Animal, Plant and Bacterial Toxins.  Opossum are being studied as they produce a protein identified as LTNF (Lethal Toxin Neutralizing Factor) which protects them from venom from poisonous snakes, scorpions, spiders, tick bites, bees and wasps and even jellyfish!  Opossum have been tested and found to be immune from venom from snakes not even found on the North American Continent.  When bitten by a poisonous snake, Doctors need to determine what species of snake/type of venom the victim was bitten by.  LTNF, obtained from Opossum serum has proven to neutralize the venom from all the various snake families!
 
Opossum are the primary carries of an organism which causes Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalits (EPM) which is a neurologic disease affecting horses caused by the protozoan SN (Sarcocystis Neurona).  Horses ingest the organism in infected feed and water.  Opossum feces spread the disease, which can be fatal to horses and is hard to diagnose.  Learn more about this disease and be informed about it.  It may aid in securing trapping permission on properties and farms that breed or board horses.  Horse people definitely know about it!         
 
While you won’t receive the $10 to $15 for a prime Opossum pelt that we once received, a quality tanned Opossum pelt will still sell easily, and looks great for display or the craft trade.  Consider taking some prime Opossum next winter to sell, or to donate to the Tanned Fur Project.    
 
by Andy Shoemaker
 
Raccoons
Photo 1 left. Typical hollow tree raccoon den location.
 
While muskrats are often the first furbearer caught by new trappers in Minnesota, raccoons are usually the first large animal new trappers target.  For many, making the changes necessary to locate, catch and hold a raccoon can present some challenges.
 
Looking back more than forty years ago, I can remember obtaining permission to trap a large farm in my home area (East Central Minnesota).  I rode my bike to the farm a couple times a week in summer, counting all the raccoon tracks I’d see in the mud puddles along field roads and ponds in the cow pasture.  I’d never caught a raccoon before, but had already picked out the new bike I was planning to buy with the money from the sale of my coon pelts.  Raccoon tracks were everywhere.
 
When trapping season opened, I wired 1 ½ long spring traps to fenceposts along the field road, dumping raccoon lure onto the ground near the mud puddle, or wire a trap to a wooden stake and pound into the ground at pasture ponds where coon tracks had been all summer.  Some sets were baited, some without.  Surely a catch was a done deal on next morning’s check.
 
Photo 2 below. District 6 trapper Mike Herschman with 37.4-pound raccoon caught in baited cubby with 220 body grip. Won the MTA 2016 heaviest raccoon contest.
 
The first check of empty traps was hard to understand, but after two weeks of checking and only a skunk for my hard work, I knew something was wrong.  One thing I noticed was that the hundreds of coon tracks I’d seen in the summer were long gone.  I asked the farmer if he had anyone else trapping the farm, or coon hunting it?  He assured me I had sole rights on his farm.  I decided I needed bait for all my sets so fish and sardines were added.  Within days I had plenty of action, but not what I had planned.  
 
We didn’t have opossums in the area back then but skunks were extremely plentiful and they seemed to find the fish bait to their liking.  After another week or so, I finally had a raccoon blunder into one of my sets.  Upon arrival, my set looked like a bomb had gone off.  A huge catch circle was clearly visible.  The farmers wood fence post now looked like a toothpick, chewed around from bottom to top.  The trap was wound so tight around the wire and post that it was difficult to untangle.  The only way I knew I had caught a raccoon was the coon tracks in the mud.  The coon had wrapped the trap tight around the fence, and using its great strength, powered out and escaped.
 
I didn’t bring home a raccoon that season, but I learned a lot.  What I later came to realize is how little I understood about raccoons and their habits.  I had completely ignored the farmer’s oak woods, corn fields and geographical features (ridges, dry washes, culverts).  I even knew less about what raccoons ate, where they lived, how the seasons changed their habits, and just how strong they could be!  Finally, my understanding of traps and methods were also seriously lacking.
 
Raccoons are large, strong animals.  Often 25 pounds, Minnesota raccoons can be much larger. Body length of 30 to 37 inches is common with a tail between 9 and 12 inches long.  Heavily muscled skull, neck and front shoulders along with an ornery disposition make them formidable opponents to larger predators and dogs.  Long legs with tapered feet make pulling out of traps easier for raccoons than other furbearers.  Raccoons have five toes on each foot and when walking have a peculiar back foot front foot, front foot back foot, track pattern.
Photo 3 on right. Typical walking track left by raccoons.  Lower left prints – left track back foot, right track front foot.  Alternates.
  
Raccoons start breeding during warm spells in late February or March, and young are born approx. two months later.  Litters between two and eight “kits” are common.  Female raccoons do all the work, raising the kits alone.  Four to six months later, raccoons are “adults” and will start to live on their own.
 
Raccoons are “Omnivores” meaning they eat multiple types of food.  The kits start out with minnows, frogs, crayfish, but also eat bird and turtle eggs and young.  In midsummer, raccoons will eat worms and nightcrawlers, often tearing up sod in lawns to get them.  They love soft dirt, and will investigate freshly dug dirt for grubs, insects and worms.  In late summer, raccoons start to shift their diet to various plant material – fruits, berries, apples and grapes.
 
Photo 4 below. Late season food source – crab apple tree with fruit.

Late season finds raccoons hitting the oaks for acorns and in the corn fields, putting on as much weight as possible before winter.  
Raccoons are not “true hibernators” like woodchucks or ground squirrels.  They will den up at times during bitter cold weather, but do leave the den from time to time.  I have trapped many raccoons during below zero weather, and often get some of my largest raccoons of the year during the winter in fisher/bobcat seasons.  If a food source is easily available, and the snow is not too deep, raccoons will be feeding from it.
 
 Photo 5 below on right. Large boar coon caught in northern Minnesota with below zero temps.
Raccoons are opportunists in denning locations.  In my area, large Oaks, Cottonwoods, Silver Maples, and especially Basswood trees seem to be favored by coons.  I have also found large numbers to den in dry culverts, large brush/tree piles, vacant buildings, storm sewers, under sheds, junked cars.  In northern wilderness areas they like abandoned/dry beaver lodges and beaver runs.  While living in Western Minnesota I often found raccoons living in ground dens and old badger holes.  Raccoons will often change den locations, especially when ticks and fleas are numerous.
 
Photo 6 below. Massive tree regularly used as a raccoon den tree.  Many raccoons previously caught here over the years.
Raccoons commonly travel in “family groups” in the fall, consisting of the adult female “sow” and young of the year.  They will follow regular routes from the den to water, and from den to a food source.  Some of the trails can become quite visible.  On car trips south through Iowa, I’d drive family members crazy pointing out heavy coon trails easily seen from the car window along highways/freeways.  If heavy trails are found in your area, think about multiple sets at these locations.  It is not uncommon to make multiple catches.
 
Photo 7 right. Heavy raccoon trail from denning area to food source (corn field).
The male “boar” coons also make trails to and from dens and food sources, although it has been my experience that these trails are less visible and not nearly as worn down as those made by the sow and her young.  In more open country with long fence lines, raccoons will follow weedy fence lines with scattered trees, having a distinct trail from tree to tree.
 
 
Photo 8 below. Huge one-eyed boar coon caught along less distinct coon trail leading to food source (cornfield).
Lakes, ponds and marshes often have a heavy coon trail around its perimeter.  Look for large hollow trees close by and trails will be found leading from the tree to the water.  Raccoons hunt for injured ducks, geese and muskrats around water.  In winter, check farm fields or woods for fruit/apple trees with fruit still attached to the branches.  Coons will travel a long way to feed from these.
 
Photo 9 right. Large hollow Cottonwood tree, den location with trail leading to nearby pond.  Many coons caught here over the years.
 
Rivers, streams and ditches often have distinct wet trails in and out of the water, and higher dry trails up on the bank, from raccoons.  Trails may lead to a tree leaning out over the river and used as a crossing log, log jams, or prime food sources.  Late season trails may lead to an area of the stream that doesn’t freeze over in cold weather, giving coons access to open water.
 
Photo 10 below. Winter snared coon on trail leading to open water.  Heavily furred boar coon.
A large wooded area with mature trees adjacent to a cornfield will usually have a distinct coon trail leading to the cornfield food source.  If a large tree “stands out” more than other trees, or is a little bit closer, look closely for a trail leading to/from this tree.  Raccoons use such trees as landmarks for travel and safety.
 
Never before has a trapper had so many options for traps/equipment in trapping raccoons.  I have footholds, multiple types of dog-proof traps, body grippers, live traps, and snares in my inventory.  All are at times better suited than others for different situations.  Anchoring systems have also improved.  Wiring a trap to a tree is pretty much a thing of the past.  Adjustable cable tie-off systems, various types of rebar stakes, cable and chain anchors are much improved over my first attempts at anchoring raccoon traps with a wooden stake.
 
Photo 11 right. Large lone tree adjacent to cornfield.  Raccoon spotted sleeping in the fork of tree, middle of the day, late October.  Heavy trail from tree to cornfield.
 
When anchoring a trap, if not on a drowning cable, or using a body grip, make sure that the raccoon, when caught, can not get ahold of anything solid to tangle on.  Once the trap chain gets twisted tight and stops swiveling, a raccoon can often use its strength to pull out of the trap.  I have had raccoons “twisted up” this way pull out on my approach from both footholds and dog-proof traps.
 
Raccoon trapping tips:
  • Early season raccoons seem to prefer sweet attractors, and fish
  • Late season/colder temps use K-9 gland lures, skunk based, and meat baits
  • For dog proof traps, use fish-based cat food with various mixes, cherry oil, vanilla, molasses, salmon or fish oils
  • Sweet smells reduce the number of opossums and skunks in dog proof traps, versus fish-based smells
  • Raccoons often follow the low spots when traveling, a dry wash or creek versus climbing up and over a steep bank
  • Low notches on river banks will often have coon trails through them
  • Culverts are often used by raccoons to travel under a road rather than climbing up over it
  • Keep track of raccoon den tree locations.  During a warm spell in January/February, set up dog proof traps nearby.  Large catches of heavily furred boar coon will be the reward
  • During mid-winter warm ups, raccoons will often den up in large cat tail marshes.  Look for some of the thickest cat tail areas where they make “nests” in the feeds
  • My records show that my best color raccoons are feeding primarily on acorns, rather than corn
  • Raccoons move heavily before a storm/weather front during trapping season
  • Raccoons can carry rabies, and a far more common disease, distemper.  Always skin raccoons with rubber gloves
  • Distemper can rapidly reduce raccoon populations in a given area, especially when populations are very high
  • Standing corn fields hold raccoons far later than picked corn fields
  • The colder the temps, the closer you need to be to the den locations
  • Using glycol or glycerin mixed with dog proof baits will keep traps from freezing up.
Photo 12 below. Processed Racoon Furs.

Even though current prices on raccoon pelts are poor compared to years past, consider taking some time to harvest raccoons every season if found in your area.  With trappers taking less of these large predators, our game bird and song bird populations are taking a beating from the growing raccoon population.  A large fully furred prime raccoon pelt makes a beautiful tanned pelt for wall hangings and gifts to others who do not trap.
 
by Andy Shoemaker
Bucket List Bobcat
I used to think about what it would be like when I made it to retirement.  It was very hard to project that far ahead, but one thing for certain, I was going to get out and spend more time on the trapline!  I had always tried to make time for trapping while raising a family and working long hours. Some seasons, trapping meant hanging out with a friend on a weekend who had time to run some traps, or having a friend stop by with a “first of” trapline catch, and helping with skinning or fur put up.  I wanted to do more trapping, but just didn’t have the time.  So, in my mind a bucket list was created for some of those “must see or must do” activities, goals if you will, for the day that retirement arrived.
Photo 1 – Adult male bobcat. (right)
Well, retirement came faster than I ever thought it would.  More time to spend with family and friends, fishing, hunting, and on the trapline. Remember the bucket list I mentioned?  One of those bucket list items was to finally trap a Minnesota Bobcat.  A large percentage of my trapping had always taken place right in the Metro area.  Very few bobcats around.  For me to get into decent bobcat country, I needed to travel a minimum of an hour or more north.  I had never seen a bobcat in the wild, only crossed bobcat tracks on a few occasions, and had never set a trap for one before.  I was definitely starting from scratch!  So, here’s hoping that some of my experiences, successes and failures, help you to catch that first bobcat and take it off your bucket list!
 
To prepare for trapping a new species of furbearer, learn as much as possible about the furbearer prior to heading out in pursuit of it.  Sounds pretty simple, right?  Common sense approach, but often trappers don’t put in the time in preparation for targeting a new species.  They come across a set of tracks or another sign of that new furbearer, and then decide to try and catch it.
 
Photos 2-3 Bobcat Tracks, sand and snow. (left & right)
Read all you can on the subject.  Today’s numerous sources of information – books, videos, web sites, blogs, all give a wealth of information to the trapper that was not available just two or three decades ago.  Don’t forget to check out the Minnesota Trapper’s Association web site for the Trappers Education Manual, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources web site for general descriptions, species range maps, and harvest data.  These will give you an idea of where the bobcats are being taken in Minnesota, examples of tracks, recommended trap types and sizes, and common sets to use.  I will also mention that I found the book, “Extreme Northern Bobcat Trapping and Snaring” by Rick Olson, to be especially relevant and helpful with learning about Minnesota Bobcats!  
 
Another tip, just because an area has a high number of bobcats harvested there, it does not mean it is, “the place to go” for cats.  Large expanses of territory not populated by bobcats may exist there, access or private property issues may abound, heavy hunting pressure with hounds or grouse hunters with dogs may make an area one to avoid, not to mention competition from the other trappers.  Bobcats are where you find them!
One thing learned many years ago is that you can’t catch a targeted furbearer if they aren’t around, no matter how good your set is!  Once you’ve set your sights on an area, confirm the presence of bobcats, in good numbers.  A single-track crossing through an area over a month’s time doesn’t qualify as good bobcat country.  I know some will say they have seen a bobcat in the Metro area.  That may be true, but an occasional wandering bobcat does not make the area a good location to set a trapline for them.  Multiple tracks in an area help to confirm a strong population.
 
Photo 4 – Multiple sets of Bobcat tracks, on frozen stream. (left)
 
Travel location.
Every year I get bobcat photos from friends captured on trail cameras.  A single photo during the course of fall deer hunting preparation does not indicate a large population.  If I’m told of many photos obtained, and multiple bobcats recognized from the photos, then I’m starting to get interested.  Trail cameras can be a fantastic aid in confirming a population of bobcats in the target area though.
 
Once a target area has been established for trapping bobcats, many parts of that area will not be used to a great extent, by cats.  Learn what type of “micro habitats” bobcats prefer to spend most of their time in.  Concentrate your trapping efforts there.  These can include hunting areas, cover and resting areas where cats go to ride out storms or get away from hounds, and travel ways.
 
On one of my early attempts at bobcat trapping, spotty snow cover showed a fair amount of bobcat sign in the area, crossing roads and trails.  A few days later 4 inches of snow covered the ground, and hunters with hounds were patrolling the roads for cat crossings.  I’d see multiple groups of hound hunters in the area every day, as well as hearing hounds actively working cats.  Bobcat tracks, especially near the roads, virtually disappeared overnight.  When disturbed, bobcats will move into some of the most inaccessible places in the area, and minimize their travel.  Be prepared to go a long way from the roads and ATV trails to locate them!

Photos 5 & 6 – Trail camera scout photos. (below right & left)
One of the best ways to locate bobcats is to know their prey, and where to go to find it.  In northern parts of Minnesota, bobcats are searching out good snowshoe hare habitat, grouse habitat, and certain times of the year, deer populations.  I’ve always had good luck locating cat sign around beaver ponds, cedar swamps, young aspen growth areas, old bear bait areas, and frozen waterways, especially streams and rivers.
Photo 7 – Grouse tracks and droppings on drumming log. Good Bobcat hunting area. (left)
 
Photo 8 – District 6 Trapper Greg Leaf with large male Bobcat, from a Northern Cedar swamp. (right)
 
In central Minnesota, bobcats are hunting cottontail rabbits, pheasants and grouse, and now with their abundance, turkeys.  I have followed bobcat tracks following turkey and grouse tracks for some distance in winter.  While certainly capable of catching many other types of prey, these will be some of the most common.  A large turkey will provide multiple meals for a bobcat.
 
Have an understanding how bobcats hunt!  In some of my early failures, I’d find areas with bobcat tracks, and thick cover.  I’d make my sets without considering the main way bobcats hunt – by sight!  Some trap locations were in such thick cover, a cat would have to, by luck, wander within 3 feet of my set to find it.  Many good opportunities were missed because the cats weren’t seeing my sets.  When making a set in thick cover, try to have a visual lane or two that will let your set and flagging be visible for some distance.  This will increase your odds of a visit, and hopefully, a catch.
 
Speaking of flagging, many types will be effective: feathers, small bits of fur, cd’s, tinsel/garland, ornaments.  Make sure what you use to attach your flagging to the overhanging branch or limb is strong enough to stand up to wet snowfall, strong winds, and stiff enough to avoid entanglement.  A piece of flagging all wrapped up around a branch or sitting on the ground covered in snow is not much of a visual attractor.  Experiment with different types and see what types work best for you!
Photo 9 – Flagging near set. (left)
 
Methods of trapping.  Try and use all of them, and work on the ones you haven’t had success with.  It will make you a better trapper.  My first venture at bobcat trapping was on weekends when I could stay at a friend’s hunting shack.  Foot traps along trails, foot traps guarding cubbies with bait, and foot traps with a nearby visual attractor were used.  I had a low population of bobcat to work with, and sub-par equipment; slightly beefed-up fox traps.  Several near misses occurred and one catch, a large bobcat, was lost because I allowed it to reach a nearby tree for leverage to power out of the smaller trap.  
 
The limited time and long distance I had to travel to trap bobcats led me to use body grip methods.  I tried natural cubby locations, and many different types of homemade cubbies, with bait.  I relied heavily on long distance call lures, beaver castor and bobcat lures at the cubby.  I experimented with a variety of flagging, near the set, at the set, and behind the set.  For what it’s worth, I now prefer a flagging that easily moves in the wind, within 6 feet of my cubby, and a non-moving visual attractor directly at the cubby.  Get the bobcat close to my set, then switch its focus to my cubby and bait.
 
Photo 10 – Bobcat before snow arrives. (right)
 
Using body grippers for bobcats always brings up talk about the type of trigger system used.  My first catch came from a bottom centered wire trigger in a wishbone shape.  No modified pan.  Worked just fine and gave the cubby a very “open” look to it.  Other times I have had success with a straight bottom trigger wire, pushed all the way to one side, or a “T” shaped trigger system, again placed center bottom.  I placed hollow weed stems on the trigger wire to hide the metal trigger.  That also worked.  I have also caught bobcat with the popular modified, wooden trigger pan.  It works, but I do think at times it reduces the open area of the cubby, possibly causing some cats to shy away from entering.  A wire trigger makes the cubby look more open.  See what works best for you.  
Photo 11 – Bobcat catch with body grip and wood pan. (left)
A few years ago, at one set, I noticed how an approaching bobcat would be likely to move between some upturned tree roots, and another tree, if approaching my cubby.  After two empty trap checks, plans were made to stay at a friend’s trailer and maintain the sets over the weekend.  I placed a snare in this spot, a 3/32, 7 X7 coyote snare.  Just before I left the set location, I looked back at the snare and decided to raise the level, and narrow the loop.  The following day showed that the snare was the way to go, and that by slightly raising the snare and narrowing the loop, I caught my largest bobcat to date, a mature 44# male.  I do now prefer a smaller lighter snare for bobcats.  Don’t forget to have a breakaway device on all snares set on land.
 
Photo 12 – District 6 Trapper Fran Satnik with a large male Bobcat. (right)
I’ve also purchased and set a number of live traps for bobcat.  I am still experimenting with a variety of methods, baits, and attractors, but to date, have not been successful.  I’ll keep working with this until I am able to figure things out and catch cats.  Why would I use a live trap for bobcats?  They would allow me to set some places closer to roads and trails, and not worry about hunting dogs.  I also like the idea of being able to release a fisher if caught after the season has closed.    
 
Bobcat like fresh bait.  When baiting cubbies, I have tried many different things.  Whole muskrat (heavily damaged by mink so not salvageable) skinned muskrat, rabbit, squirrel, partial chickens, a taxidermy Hungarian Partridge, venison scraps, and beaver.  No question, fresh beaver, or beaver with beaver fleshings, always seem to work best.  In very cold weather, beaver meat can also “dry out” and not give off much odor.  I will toss fresh beaver fleshings onto my bait, and it will give it a stronger odor.  I’ve often filled containers with beaver fleshing when putting up pelts, and place into a freezer until the season opens.  It consistently gets the most visits and catches for me!  Give it a try, and keep using fresh bait at your sets.
 
When making a set, take the time to anchor the set properly.  If using body grip traps, tying off to limbs or trees is easy to do with cable extensions.  I will still add a swivel where the trap chain meets the cable.  Always inspect your cable prior to the season starting, and after a catch is made.  Any damaged or rusty cable gets replaced.  Same for cable extensions on snares.
 
I have not used drag set ups for bobcat yet, but plan to this season.  Drags can help preserve a set location by allowing the bobcat to move some distance away from the set before tangling.    
 
The first bobcat I ever “caught” was lost because I used too much anchor wire which allowed the bobcat to reach a nearby tree and power out.  Consider all objects in the area when staking solid with a foothold.  Try to keep the bobcat from reaching other objects to gain leverage from.  
 
Photo 13 – Greg Leaf with his 3 Bobcat Day! (left)
 
Some additional thoughts.  I still use the 220-body grip while trapping bobcats with cubbies.  I’ll make it clear that I am extremely careful and selective about where I place these traps.  Many of my sets are on private, remote property.  When trapping public land, I often set fewer traps because I choose locations that are so remote, or difficult to get into.  They take a great deal of time and effort to set, check and maintain, and these remote locations help to keep those walking with dogs or hunting from coming close to my sets.  As always, when in doubt, don’t set the trap.
Photo 14 – Fresh Bobcat tracks heading towards my traps! (right)
 
All trappers must be aware of the various regulations regarding the setting of traps and snares before heading out to trap.  Cubbies with 7-inch overhangs, exposed baits, snares with breakaway devices, special lynx zone regulations on cubby size, anchoring – use of drags, etc.  Make every effort to be informed.
 
Any chance you can take to ride with an experienced bobcat trapper is worth the time to do so!  A trapping friend, District 6 Trapper, Greg Leaf, brought me with on his bobcat/marten trapline and took the time to explain his methods and set locations.  I was lucky to see Greg catch a beautiful large male bobcat, and a marten, and greatly improved my knowledge by riding with.  A couple years ago, Greg had a three-cat day!  All caught with body grip traps.    
 
Every chance you have, follow a bobcat track in the snow.  You will learn so much more about the animal.  How they move, where they step, what they hunt, which type of habitat they spend time in.  After all, the bobcat will always be your best teacher!  Stay safe and good luck.
The Fisher
The Fisher
The fisher was in a number 3 victor offset round jaw coil spring trap with 4 feet extension chain and two prong grapples. When I got about 40 feet away, I stopped to look at the set. Which I did every day to check it. I could see the 5-gallon pail was slightly moved only, and there were numerous tracks around it. The set was made under an uprooted tree where a cedar swamp met a highland ridge. It was on public state trust land about 100 feet from a county road. On top of the ridge was another similar set made by my last year’s student, Brett Dancker. Beaver meat was used for bait. I had placed the ribs of a deer I shot there about two weeks before the season, and when we made the sets, no sign of the ribs was there. The year before, we made two sets on top of the ridge. The carcass of a deer, after the meat was removed, was placed there. When we set it last year, a large fisher had torn the deer in half, breaking the backbone and dragging it halfway down the ridge to the swamp’s edge. This year we decided to put one set on the ridge top and one on the swamp’s edge. Little did I know until I got by the bucket on Christmas Day that the trap had connected until I pulled on the chain that went under the uprooted tree cavity. It pulled back, and I heard a growl. The tracks around were of a very large fisher I knew we had him. I had my camera along and looked in the cavity-like cave under the uprooted tree, and it was too dark to see it. When I took the picture, the flash didn’t go off as it was in the daylight, although I could see his eye reflection. I was in a hurry it was Christmas morning, and I was going to relatives for Christmas dinner. I pulled on the trap chain a second time and got the trap back enough to see the long large tail of a large fisher and then a glimpse of the trap.  The trap had a very good hold of one of the back feet. Grasping the single-bit axe I had with one hand, I pulled it some more on the chain with the other. Then like a blur, he came out of the cavity on the attack. Startled, I put my right foot out to try to ward him off as I was afraid he might try to climb up me. Instead, he bit the heavy muck boots I had on, and I could feel him put tremendous pressure. It didn’t hurt; it just amazed me how much strength he had. I carefully hit him on the back of the head with my single-bit axe, which wasn’t enough to kill him. So, I hit a second time harder and with more urgency. Luckily, I hit him good this time. He released his grip and feel him get limp. After I got my composure back and knew he was for sure dead, I took my boot off and saw blood on my white tube socks. He had drawn blood.  If you want, I can tell you about the muskrat trapping, although I need to get on other projects today. No sign of predation or at least holes in the muskrat houses when we set them.   
Fur now,
Jim Ojanen
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