Website © Lisa Selner "Buffalo Annie"
Wild about Muskrat Trapping
It is a cold crisp morning in early January standing at the edge of the marsh just
before dawn. The moon above reflects against the water as a silhouette of a
muskrat swims across the creek up ahead. A quiet surreal atmosphere is soon
broken by the sound of a myriad of ducks and Canadian geese in the distance, and
the boat motor while it arduously tries to start. As we load the boat and set out for
a busy day of trapping, we watch as a small herd of deer swim across the creek,
the rising morning sun casting an elegant soft glow of light. Soon a red fox peers
out through the marsh grasses as we pass by, looking on ever so curiously for a
few moments before escaping back into the safety of the marsh. Bald eagles are
observed soaring overhead or perched atop trees that border agricultural fields
behind the marshes. This marks the beginning of my first muskrat trapping venture
on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, along the various tributaries of the Nanticoke
River. The Nanticoke is one of the most unblemished rivers in the Chesapeake
Bay locale, an area profoundly rich in history and wildlife.

Originally from the northeast and instilled with a healthy respect for such a
vocation, the trapping lifestyle has been a fascination of mine since childhood. It
entails part of a deep passion I have for the outdoors and an effervescent desire to
partake in such audacious pursuits. I have lived all over the country during the past
seven years engaging in various temporary wildlife-related job opportunities since
college. Trapping of a multitude of species has been a responsibility in each
position I’ve held. I am now living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and I have
been engaging in trapping during my spare time here as well. It has been a fantastic
learning experience having been exposed to so much this way of life has to offer!

A fellow coworker and good friend of mine here on the Eastern Shore, we’ll call
him Jerry, has been a local furbearer trapper in Wicomico County for almost 40
years. He has been a great teacher while revealing to me the ins and outs of
muskrat trapping in a tidal marsh environment. His passion and respect for the
marsh clearly show through as he relishes in the opportunity to pass his knowledge
and skills along. Jerry used to fur trap for a living being self-employed, but now
resorts to trapping on personal time both as a hobby and for supplemental income.
The number of fur trappers has diminished drastically over the years in the
Wicomico County area, and Jerry remains as only one of very few who share in
such endeavors these days.

So how is muskratting unique to the Eastern Shore? Trappers have adapted to
tidal flow and still marsh trapping (no tidal fluctuation) methods. Tidal marshlands
of the Eastern Shore generally have moderate salinity. During years of drought the
salinity increases and in the case of severe drought, high salinity can disrupt the
muskrat population either by causing mortality or forcing them to move to fresher
water if possible. Muskrats are pretty durable critters and can flourish in these salty
and brackish waters during years when salinity levels are normal because of
adequate rainfall. As a precaution against the salty waters, traps can be dipped in
motor oil or mineral spirits. Jerry uses cooking oil because it doesn’t gum up the
traps as much. They are dipped at the end of each season and stored for the
summer.

For the last two years I have been accompanying Jerry while muskrat trapping in
such an exclusive environment. It entails weekend ventures away from our full time
jobs. He mostly traps along private marshes in exchange for predator work he
performs for hunting club properties. Jerry primarily traps along creeks using 110
and 160 conibear traps and VG footholds, though during my treks with him we’ve
mainly used conibear traps. Either a 16 foot aluminum boat with a 25 horsepower
motor or a canoe is loaded with 150 traps, all attached to poles to make pulling
traps during high tide more convenient, and away we go!

Traps are set at low tide and can be tedious at times while drudging through
mudflats by foot. Active leads are set, however some still can’t be seen while the
tide is going out, so gauntlet gloves up to our shoulders are used to feel for the
hidden leads. Active leads are quite obvious as cuttings and scat or cloudy muddy
water is seen flowing out. An occasional belly slide or tracks observed along the
mudflats is yet another indication that muskrats are active nearby. Traps are set by
placing them as far in a lead as they can go so the muskrat can’t go around them.
Before setting a lead it’s important to feel inside to see what angle the muskrat is
coming from. The traps aren’t stabilized by a stake, but rather by their spring in the
mud. If there’s a root mass present on top of the lead the trap can be set with the
spring facing downward. If there’s no root mass above the lead the spring can be
stabilized facing upward. The trap can be set using either the first or last notch on
the dog.

At high tide the next day maneuvering through the creeks via boat to check or pull
traps seems to run a bit more smoothly. It is not necessary to check traps at high
tide but it’s definitely a lot easier than walking the mudflats again! Precipitation
appears to get the little guys moving quite a bit more and we’ve had better catch
nights after foggy or rainy weather conditions. Of course freezing conditions slow
things down some and trapping on the ice makes finding leads more difficult. But
after a two or three week freeze movement excels once again during a thaw while
muskrats re-stock on their food staples.

Checking muskrat traps continues to be an adrenaline rush filled experience for
me! Although unnerving at times for Jerry when some of the catch has been
discovered prior to our return by raiding scavengers (vultures, eagles, and
raccoons), on a good year close to 800 muskrats are harvested. And that’s only
counting what’s been captured on weekends! The season runs from early January
through mid-March in Wicomico County. Both brown and black muskrats are
trapped, along with an occasional rare albino. While muskratting we also set for
raccoon and otter where plenteous sign is observed.

Upon our return to the trapping shed, the harvested muskrats are skinned, fleshed
and stretched, yet another favorite facet of mine! Pelts are sold to a fur buyer at
the end of each season. The meat is also prepared for sale. Muskrat meat is very
popular along Maryland’s Eastern Shore and there’s always a steady flow of local
customers waiting for Jerry to return with a plentiful catch each weekend.
Sometimes muskrat meat is worth more than the pelt itself.

The processes involving muskrat trapping on the Eastern Shore can be exceedingly
arduous work but also extraordinarily enjoyable. It is a gratifying experience, and
one I will always remember throughout the rest of my days. I have gained the
confidence to conquer such pursuits on my own in hopes that someday I may also
be able to share this knowledge with another zealous aspiring trapper to carry on.
Special thanks to both Jerry and “Tonto” for their input and guidance in
preparation for this article. I am grateful to both for taking the time to share with
me their knowledge of still water and tidal marsh muskrat trapping on the Eastern
Shore of Maryland. Happy trapping!