Big Water Muskrats: Island Trapping the Allegheny River


Dan the Goose Man working his way down the river to our next group of sets

When I was about 12 years old I had the opportunity to talk to an old-timer called Rabbit. Rabbit and I started talking one afternoon because I brought in a couple of muskrats that I was selling to my local fur buyer. Rabbit told me, in his raspy voice,

Use your boot and make a shelf for your trap on the side of the bank. Take an apple and pin it to the bank, just above the trap. An apple’s like candy to dem muskrats.

I remember trying Rabbit’s technique later that season with no luck. I never would have guessed that it would take me another 14 years before I would finally figure out what Rabbit meant. Looking back on it now, I was so absorbed in trying to find muskrat holes in the local farm ponds, that I could set with 110 conibear, that I completely disregarded the muskrat sign that was likely littering the banks. I don’t ever recall finding a location that warranted the use of a 1.5 coilspring in those old ponds, likely because of my single-track approach to setting the ponds. I’m sure if I would go back now to those old ponds I would be looking at the banks in a whole different way.

 Trapping out of the boat was a game changer

Trapping out of the boat was a game changer

Island trapping on a time-crunch

Thanks to some scouting that my buddy Dan did during the early days of December, we were able to have a good catch of muskrats by using a boat and trapping the islands in the Allegheny River. Due to time constraints such as work and family, we were only able to trap on the weekends. We worked around this time constraint by setting traps Friday night, after work, and pull them on Sunday. Our traps would only be out for 2 nights at a time and we knew that our catch numbers would suffer because of this. Our solution to this problem was pretty simple. We tried to set every single trap we brought and “landmine” one island at a time. When Sunday came, we pulled the traps and set our sights on another island. During the work week, we anxiously counted down the work-days while planning our next trap-setting blitzkrieg for the next island downriver.

Setting traps from the boat was something that was new to me. I had never approached sets that way in the past. I usually had to walk into all of the areas that I wanted to set. By walking in, you can only set as many traps as you can carry. By setting from the boat, we could take a lot more traps. When considering how short of a time the traps were actually set, I think we were able to take a decent number of rats. If you add up all of the nights that the traps were actually set, it didn’t even total a full week.

Rabbit’s Lesson Finally Hits Home: Finding the sign

Doubled up on 'rats at this bottom-edge set

On the first night of the first island that we set, we were using 110 conibears primarily and were setting runs and what holes we could find. We also were using the conibears for blind sets or bottom-edge sets under the cut banks. We caught some ‘rats the first night but we were a little surprised that we didn’t do better. The second day we were walking along the bank and we decided to examine a bunch of willows that were growing on the bank at the water’s edge. When we lifted the branches that hung down in the water we could see all kinds of grass clippings and root clippings from where the muskrats were sitting on the bank and eating under the protection of the willow branches. This was our sign. We then knew what to look for once we had found this little muskrat’s sanctuary.

Muskrats loved this hollow log at the water's edge

A welcomed sight

We began to pay better attention to the banks and we were constantly looking for grass clipping, dig marks, and dug up roots. We began to see a pattern. A lot of the ‘rat sign appeared at the points of the islands or on the downriver side of peninsulas. We also keyed in on any vegetation that could potentially offer a good hiding spot. Areas that had a little slack water were also great places to look for sign. We would set a 1.5 coil-spring about a 1/2” to 1” under the water. We anchored the trap with heavy gauge wire to either a submerged log in the water, a rock, or staked the trap into the soft mud. This set was very quick and efficient. It didn’t take long before we found ourselves setting more 1.5 coil-springs than we did 110 conibears. This was a surprise to me simply because as a kid the 110 conibear was my go-to-trap for muskrats.  Trapping the big open water of the river was a certainly a different beast than the small farm ponds I had set growing up.

By the time we had finished trapping our first island, Rabbit’s voice began to ring in my ear, “An apple is like candy to a muskrat.” We started to incorporate this appetizing morsel into our set. This was done in order to get the ‘rats to approach our trap exactly how we wanted them to. We used a piece of apple skewered on a stick and smeared a glob of Darin Freeborough’s Muskrat/Beaver food lure on top. This really seemed to do the trick. It got the ‘rats right over our trap pans.