Trapping My First River Otter


The author holding his first otter

    I was 16 years old when I started trapping in Minnesota. I knew there was something unique about it that hunting and fishing didn’t have. Unfortunately, no one in my family trapped, but I was lucky enough to have my friend’s father, Andy, teach me how to trap. I always enjoyed exploring the woods, fields, creeks, and marshes for animal sign, and trying to find the perfect place to set a trap with the correct bait and lure. Andy first taught me how to trap in the numerous lakes, streams, and rivers that Minnesota provides. I trapped with Andy as much as possible and he helped me identify furbearer sign, use the proper trap, and how to set it correctly. Soon after learning the basics, I set out to establish my own trapline in pursuit of the many aquatic furbearers Minnesota has to offer, but found myself catching more than just furbearers. 

Having grown up in the area, it didn’t take long to establish a water-line on lakes and streams that I had hunted and fished for years. I gained permission to trap a small pond and stream system from one of my friend’s parents where I had previously hunted whitetail deer. The property was bounded to the south and east by county roads with a small stand of deciduous trees near the junction of the roads. Further west a stream ran through the property connecting several small ponds amongst a forest of cattails. A quick survey of the water-way revealed one active beaver lodge and many muskrat push-ups, all promising sign for me. 

I set Victor #1’s inside the muskrat push-ups and Duke 330’s near the beaver lodges, but there was more room to roam. One day I decided to extend my line further downstream through a large section of cattails that I hadn’t investigated yet. A wide channel drained the pond where I had my sets, but following the channel further into the cattails led to a section that was less than three feet across. Andy taught me that pinch points such as this one were the best areas to catch animals, so I decided to try a channel set. 

The author holding another otter from a trap-line close to Lake Superior

I was armed with several 220’s and one 330. I dropped my pack, pulled out my axe, and made a hole in the ice just big enough for a 330. I chopped a few alders down, carved off the small branches, and whittled the ends to a point in order to easily sink them into the substrate of the stream to funnel any critters into the trap. I drove the two largest poles into the spring holes of the trap, locking the trap in place. I then used smaller poles to block any openings where an animal might try to get around the trap. Pleased with how my set shaped up, I thought nothing could swim through this channel without going through some “steel”. After I set the trap, I covered the hole with snow to make it look more natural for any critters traveling under the ice. 

Two days after placing my channel set, I went back to check the line. I found one lonely muskrat in a 330 near the beaver lodge. I had expected to catch muskrats and beavers in the sets I put out for them (in the push-ups, and at the beaver lodge), but my excitement for the channel set sent me running through the maze of cattails to investigate what surprise may be waiting. When I reached the set, something looked off. Even if I couldn’t see the trap, I sensed something was waiting for me under the ice. I reached into my pack, grabbed my axe and started carefully chopping away at the ice. Once I pushed enough ice out of the way I could see the trap had been set off! I removed the alder poles and started pulling my trap out of the water, but noticed that there wasn’t much weight to it, and there was something green in the water. I pulled the 330 out from beneath the ice, and found a northern pike in the jaws of my trap! Somehow this wolf-of-the-water couldn’t slink through the jaws of my trap without scraping the trigger. Luckily, I had my fishing license or I would have been in trouble for my unorthodox fishing methods. I opened the jaws, took the pike out, and reset the trap in the same spot. Even though my mother looked confused when I tried to explain how I caught a pike in a trap, we enjoyed the fresh fish for supper that night. 

The author displaying his first otter pelt

Three days passed until I was back on the line. I made my way back to my favorite set in the channel, and started chopping away the ice. As soon as I peeked through the beginnings of a hole, I saw fur! Did a beaver or a muskrat make its way down the stream? It seemed too large to be a muskrat, so I was ready to pull a big beaver out of the ice. As I began pulling the animal out of the water, I saw short fur and a long skinny dark animal appearing, but it couldn’t fit through the hole I had chopped out. I let go of the trap and watched the beast sink back down into the murky waters. I cautiously chopped a larger hole, big enough to pull the creature through the ice. Once I deemed the hole large enough, I pulled the heavy 330 out of the water to discover a huge male otter with jet black fur and a grizzled white face! The animal was heavier than I expected an otter to be, but with no experience otter trapping I was amazed with my catch. I depressed the springs and eased him out of the trap. I was in awe of how beautiful the animal was. It had a completely fusiform shape to make travel through water effortless, large whiskers sensitive enough to pick out a crayfish while hunting, and cuspids that would make me think twice about getting too close. Amazed that I had just caught an elusive otter, I put him in my pack (which could only fit about half of him) and headed home. 

When I arrived back home, my family was in awe of the beauty of the otter. After everyone had a chance to examine the creature, I skinned him out. Holding up the skinned pelt, it was almost as tall as me! I told my story to Andy, who was just as excited as I was when I pulled the otter from the ice. The photos I have of the otter now remind me of the excitement of trapping and all the amazing years I spent trapping in Minnesota, which have kept me involved in trapping ever since.