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The Mink Story
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Andy's Tracks & Trails

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 Right)
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

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©️ Copyright 2022. MN Trappers Assn. All rights reserved.
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