Mink Trapping Memories
After 52 years of mink trapping and over 3,000 mink trapped in that span of time, I have had my share of memories, and I would like to share a few of them with you. I have been fortunate to have the ability to have put up those numbers and the guidance of a couple of very good trappers in my early youth days. I have had several years where I have trapped 100 mink or more, and four years of 200 plus mink trapped in a season. These numbers came only with a lot of good practical mink knowledge, hard work and knowing how the mink interacts with its environment. Many trappers are doomed to mediocrity because they have the illusion that mink are wary and difficult to trap. However, having said that, a good min trapper must first learn to respect and appreciate the mink. Mink are no smarter than muskrats, yet many trappers do have difficulty in trapping them simply because they lack the understanding of their seasonal behavioral patterns, traps set locations and habits.
Before I ran my first mink trap line in 1959, I had the opportunity to accompany my uncle Leo Appel on his mink line the previous year on the Little Minnesota River west of Browns Valley, MN. Leo was not a big numbers trapper. Nevertheless, his understanding of mink behavior was second to none during those days. Leo conducted most of his mink trapping on foot hiking as much as tow miles of the Minnesota River, and setting no more than two-dozen foot hold traps. During that year I learned the art of mink travel patterns, location, bank structure in relation to mink travel patterns, and how to use water riffles to maximize trapping success in extreme cold weather. Most of Leo’s sets were blind sets in a variety of good mink habitat and locations, but he did use bated sets using fresh fish in choice location with good success. Locations that proved to be mink magnets were areas of the meandering Minnesota Rover with beaver dams, drift plies of all kinds, steep mud banks next to a large pool of water, over hanging bank, any natural obstruction along a river bank, old high water muskrat or beaver dens, spring water areas and more. All of these I learned were good minky locations for blind sets. My uncle gave me a book to read, “Professional Mink Trapping” by Stanley Hawbaker. I read this book from cover to cover several times hoping not to miss a single detail. I also read several issues of the 1950’s publication magazines/catalogs called “The Trapper”, authored by Stanely Hawbaker. In 1959 I brought my first subscription to “Fur-Fish-Game” magazine, and I have not missed a single issue since the September issue. Reading FFG magazines and the Hawbaker magazines were an important part of my learning and interest in trapping.
My first mink trap line in 1959 was on the Minnesota River where my uncle taught me the art of mink trapping the year before. I only caught two mink that first year. But the thins that I learned from that experience were priceless in what it led to the next 50 years of mink trapping success. I remember well trying all the different sets that I read in Hawbaker’s mink trapping book and his trapper magazines. Some were successful, other were not. The following year I caught five mink, but I was beginning to learn more and more about reading mink sign, and identifying good prime set locations. While being a full time college student the following years, I managed to trap mink on weekends and extended vacations. My catch numbers were not anything to write home about, but I continued to learn more and more and more about mink trapping in new areas away from home that would prove to be very valuable in later years. The year following my college graduation I worked for the SD Game, Fish & Parks Dept doing a number of wildlife research projects until the middle of October. The min trapping season opened up on November 15, so I had a full month to prospect and prepare for a bigger season up along the Minnesota River area near Browns Valley, MN. With added confidence and mink trapping experience I extended my mink trap line to five miles of the Jorgenson Creek, which drained into the Minnesota River to the west. I also trapped some of the smaller tributary creeks that drained into the Jorgenson with good success. That season was my first season of catching more than 10 mink, as I ended up with 40 that season. Mink prices were pretty fair, and the money earned from trapping mink and fox that season helped pay for much of my college graduate work the following year.
In 1967, I went back to South Dakota State University to do graduate work and to take courses to prepare for teaching. I was not able to set a mink trap line that season until just two weeks before Christmas. The weather unlike many December’s was ideal for mink trapping, and I trapped mink until the season closed December 21. My trap line that season extended from the Minnesota River, Jorgenson Greek, many smaller creeks north of Wilmont, and the Eastman Slough just east of Peever, SD. That season I got my first taste of trapping mink on a frozen slough, and I discovered that trapping mink in this frozen environment was very challenging, fun and rewarding. I still remember well that huge male mink that I trapped in a tunnel going into a muskrat house. I have trapped hundreds of very large jumbo mink over the years, but this one I would estimate was much bigger than most. If only I would have had a camera with me that day. That mink would have made a pretty picture against the glistening bright sunlight and bright blue sky. The most noteworthy memory of that season was December 17. This date was like no other ordinary trapping day in that I caught seven very large beautiful male min that day. Since I started trapping, this was the most mink ever trapped in a single day. In fact, two of the largest mink that I had ever trapped in my lifetime were trapped on that December day preceding a light snowfall the next day. All of the mink were trapped in a water pocket sets using fresh fish. I also remember well the elation and joy in showing my wife Corinne the catch of that day. After that day I felt that I was worth of being a real mink trapper with the confidence to catch mink anywhere. Although I was now catching more mink in baited pocket sets, the lessons learned the previous seasons in reading mink sigh and picking out precise blind set locations was really rewording me with increased dividends.
Since 1967 and though the 1070’s my mink catch was anywhere from 50-75 mink per year, with the exception being 1979, when I trapped 216 mink. I remember that I had phenomenal success trapping mink during the Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation breaks, while extending my trap lines further north as far as the Minnesota River, where I first learned to trap mink. The number of traps set during the week days was limited to only 15-20 traps, mostly on Willow Creek east of Watertown, SD. Friday evening after work I would set more traps late into the evening in readiness for a two day check on the weekend, but I usually had to pull a lot of those traps on Sunday because of time constraints during the week. The 1980’s saw my total yearly mink catches at 100 or more per season. 1985 was an exceptional year in which I trapped 209 mink in much of the same river systems and sloughs as I did in 1979 with more new key mink areas added to the trap line. /During that season I caught 26 mink in one day, which is the most that I have ever trapped in a single day. However, that memory seems to have been somewhat overshadowed by another event in December that year when I trapped 9 male mink on the last 9 sets that I checked along the Big Sioux River on my way back to Watertown from the north. Ironically, my total catch that day was 18 mink with a total of about 60-65 traps set. I logged a lot of miles on the mink trap line the next 20 years or so. During most of those years my average yearly catch was about 125 mink per season. However, I did have two more 200 mink seasons in the late 1990’s. Mink trapping on river systems is not just about trapping mink. I also trap a lot of raccoon and muskrat with some beaver added to the mixture from the same trap line as well. Many days my catch of coons and or muskrats would exceed the number of mink trapped that day. With all of those animals trapped on a daily basis, time management was always a problem. All of these animals had to be skinned and processed properly each day before the next days trap line. That is another story in itself.
Over the years most of my best daily catches would come just before a weather system such as a cold front or even a blizzard advanced into my trapping areas. All furbearers, included mink respond to these extreme changes in barometric pressure and go on feeding frenzies, unlike any other of their natural movement patterns. I always took full advantage of these situations and set a large number of new sets before the arrival of the front. By keeping a vigilant eye on the daily and weekly weather forecasts a trapper can really capitalize on this phenomenon. Just as and example, I will site an event that happened in 2000. The season was only a few days old, and I was only making modest catches o the rivers and creeks that I was trapping. I took a person day off from work and checked raps most of that Friday. But, I knew that a large weather system was approaching NE South Dakota in the next 24 hours, so I hurried home after checking traps that day, loaded up the pickup with more traps, bait, equipment, lunch, an extra 6 volt flashlight battery, and set traps until after midnight. Actually, most of the sets were not too difficult to put in because of my pre-season scouting, pre-digging of many bank pockets, and building rocks in riffle areas to form a faster flow of water against the banks. Despite the adverse conditions of light falling snow and slightly blustery conditions, I managed to set out 45 traps that night. The next day I caught 24 mink of which 18 were nice large males. Most of those 24 mink were trapped in the sets that I made the night before the front arrived. The following day I trapped another 19 mink, mostly from the 45 sets made before the weather system moved in.
Following the passage of the frontal system, temperatures plunged well below freezing. Most of the rivers froze up, snow depths built up, and most back roads were now unusable for 4×4 vehicles. If I had not taken advantage of the weather change by setting a lot more traps before the arrival of the front, I would have missed out on a great opportunity to make those outstanding catches. Catching mink in numbers for the next week or so was no easy task. I had one real opportunity that season to trap mink in good numbers during that early season, and I am thankful that I took advantage of it.
There were many years when I surely could have trapped 400 mink or more in a season. But, I had to also budget my time trapping fox, coyote, raccoon and muskrat. With the exception of two or three years, trapping fox and coyote was actually more profitable that ink trapping during the 1970’s, and early 1980’s, and I surely did take advantage of those higher prices and trapped a lot of fox and coyote. Despite trapping many other furbearers over the past 52 years, I have not missed a single mink-trapping season. Sure, there were some years, especially in the 1970’s when I could have made more money if I would have just trapped fox or coyote. However, I always tried to maintain somewhat of a balance of furbearers trapped. Regardless of prices paid for other furs, mink trapping was just plain in my blood, and I would always be out there in their pursuit. This past fall, muskrats were projected to be the best moneymaker. It would have been pretty tempting to just trap muskrats for the entire month of November. I did trap them pretty hard for the first 9 days while we had good open water conditions, and I did put up some pretty fair numbers of rats before I switched over to mink trapping. During the next two and an half weeks that I trapped mink into early December, I managed to catch 102 before the weather in South Dakota turned very cold and snowy. I love to catch those late fall nice beautiful prime mink. To me, that is an extra bonus for not trapping them too early in the season.
I still owe much of my mink trapping success to my early years where I really learned the precise details of mink behavior, blind set location, and I had two excellent mentors who taught me a great deal about mink trapping while I was getting started. However, the real key to success at anything is your motivation and determination to excel. In my opinion success at anything is the reward for the pursuit towards excellence. I have been fortunate to have had good health, good friends and supporting wife during all those memorable trapping years.
South Dakota Trapper’s Assc. Inc.