Mink On The Stretchers

Mink On The Stretchers


Bill Nelson

Over a period of many years I have had a great number of requests each fall for printed instructions in mink trapping. All through these years I have never found the time to compile manuscripts for these and other printed instructions. Most of the time I have been too busy trapping or getting ready for trapping or moving around.

A great number of my requests have come from beginners in the mink trapping game; others from trappers that had met with just “fair” success in trapping. Quite a great number were from men that can be called “good mink trappers”. Men wanting to learn new tricks. As one said; “A fellow never gets to be so good at anything but what he can learn new of great value to him”. Personally, I am learning all the time. I do not claim to be a Record Mink Trapper, nor do I claim to be the best mink trappers. THERE WILL NEVER BE A BEST MINK TRAPPER.

However, by the time I was fifteen I had become what might be termed a fair mink trapper. Compared with the present day, mink were plentiful then and I made some good catches. Now and then I made catches that even surprised me. For a few years a trap to me was simply something that you set for a mink. I got so I thought only in the terms of mink, and all this gave me a good start in storing up a few facts about this animal, and also proving the value of certain types of mink sets and the value of properly used mink lure. Sine than I have trapped for mink through many mid-Western sections, the North Country, West, far-West and West Coastal areas. Each of these areas were so widely separated that I have had to operate under every trapline condition known to trappers. From all this I learned that no single method of mink trapping will always turn the trick; that mink in Iowa and Missouri will not always do what northern Minnesota will do; that mink in interior California are a far cry from the fat tidewater brownies.
Mink trapping in general is often a rather complicated game of checkers. True, a good system of trapping can be used and make the game much easier, but no man … I say NO MAN … was ever able to foresee every mink’s every move. This trick can be done to a very great degree of success with such smarties as red fox and coyotes, but mink are queer critters at times. You can plan the travel actions of every six mink out of ten that you locate, but the other four are going to upset your bets. However, these four out of the ten can be partly rounded up through an applied good system of trapping. Enough so that another pair of them can be tacked to the stretchers. Let us hope that none of the Super Trappers ever become so proficient that they are able to tack up the remaining two. After all, we must have a pair left here and there each winter if we are to have any mink to trap next season.

Space and time absolutely forbids my going into lengthy detail regarding the 1001 peculiar little habits that mink have. Enough to say that you might read a dozen books and trap a dozen straight years and still be learning a lot about mink. And you would continue to learn about mink, and unlearn about them, each year thereafter … if you were an observing trapper and blessed with the ability to analyze what you had observed. I might say here that if I were to write down all the little habits and trickeries of mink, all the fact and theory I have waded through, all the dos and don’ts; that I would wind up with a very large book. Any trapper should know that to locate good mink trapping that he must first locate a good system of waterways. The more miles of waterway he has to cross and recross the better. I say cross and recross, as in the farmlands, or any settled area, it is a poor system to depend on your feet and travel much up and down streams. Mink trapping must be done with the aid of fast moving wheels. All too many trappers leave their cars and take down the creeks where they find a concentration of MINK TRACKS, and there spend hours making eighty percent more sets than they should; and by so doing cut down their possible mink take by eighty percent. The best of the cream harvest period for mink trapping is short in most areas. As a rule, the real harvest is gathered during those first thirty precious days. Make the most of them by making only key sets on your streams and lakes and by having a carefully planned trapline that will allow you to cover a vast water network in a short period of time.

All this gets us right back to the all important job of prospecting. With few exceptions, I do not recommend that a trapper waste time preparing mink sets while he is prospecting. This especially applies to farmland type of trapping. Most of the real deadly mink sets are as good, if not better, when made at the actual time of trapping. Even if advance set preparation was practical old man weather could, and usually does, erase all your work with a single sweep of fall storms.

When planning and prospecting mink areas I find it to be a good plan to first locate and become familiar with your main waterways. If you have the time you should do this during late summer. Soon after, you should begin the chore of working out the great network feeder; large creeks, small creeks and the small and tiny, twisting streams that finger their way down from the upper table lands and prairies. Do not by-pass these steep banked and grass sheltered streams that appear to be no more than wet ditches; for there you are going to find a large percent of your mink crop during the first two weeks of fall trapping. These streams are often passed up by Mr. Average Trapper. They do not often appeal to the trapper that has not become real student of mink habit. But right there on those tiny flatbed streams you will find an amazing amount of mink cover and mink foods. And right there is where most females have their litters of young.

A large percent of these mink start to filter down toward the larger streams as winter advances. After the more sluggish waters are frozen solid even more travel down. However, many females and not a few bucks will continue to live there, and especially in better mouse and rabbit sections. Many of these mink will leave very little, if any sign to indicate there presence.

While learning your water systems and prospecting, use a large notebook. Write down where you go, directions, each creek or lake, number of sets decided on for each stop, litter of mink found, lone mink, KEEP A CURRENT LOG of all that you learn and find. It will come in mighty handy later on when you are trying to crowd eighteen hours of work into eight hours of allotted daytime. Do not forget to jot down key landmarks for road travel reference. Start your actual mink sign and set locations prospects in September and start with the before mentioned flatbed streams or wet ditches. September will allow you to reach much sign in such areas and also allow you to take inventory of the mink food supplies. Make notes and keep in mind the better food and cover areas, because even though you do not find an abundance of mink tracks and mink dropping on these sharp banked little streams, you can rest assured that plenty of food and cover coupled with water means mink and mink sets. Only the rankest amateur will insist on a lot of mink tracks before making a set in an obviously good mink area. After working out the twisting puzzles of the flatbed streams, start on the medium sized creeks a bit below where the flatlands start to break into hill country. Work on down to the large creeks and last, work out the main rivers. October is a fine time to prospect the main streams. Perhaps your area varies a bit from the above, but the good rule is first to work out the little water and gradually advance to the big water. This rule applies to both prospecting and trapping.

When you prospect the large streams keep in mind that there are going to be mink weeding into them from the network of smaller steams as the season advances. Very late in the season there will also be those really big old bucks coming in from the brushy hill country. They will not be coming in for food. Not those “hill-billy” mink; they will be starting their inventory of females. They usually work out the large stream quickly and then start up the smaller ones and on up to the headwaters where so many females have remained. Do not forget these well fed old bucks that seem to appear from nowhere. And do not forget that your sets will really have to click on them, because they very often make but one single appearance on a section of stream or lake.

I have made no mention of actual set location, as I will attempt to feature locations along with the actual set making later on. And much that I have said had to do with the average farmland type area found through the mid-West, Northwest and mid-Eastern section. When we get around to the actual set making I will have something to say about mink habits in the West and North.

I have mentioned that too many trappers spend too much time in areas where they might happen to find concentrations of mink tracks. This is true. While hunting out any certain area one or two mink will leave a regular network of tracks, if plenty of good tracking material is present. Such areas (often near deep hole areas filled with drift jams) appear to be regular mink heavens. The trapper is tempted to plaster a mile of such creek or lake with twelve or eighteen traps. All wasted time, as two or three well spaced and properly made sets would do the job just as well. Perhaps a half mile up the road you will find another creek showing the sign of but a lone mink travelway or two. But this creek may have excellent cover and food areas, it may lay in such a manner that is a key stream for mink travelways from one fine food or denning area to another. Such streams are often regular little gold mines. Exceptions to this is where you have learned through an actual count of the different sized tracks and abundance of small tracks that you have a full, local litter to work on. Even then three or four sets is a great plenty, and those widely spaced. In other words; if it really looks good to you, if it really looks minky, make a set or two on it. When spot trapping I feel that three sets each way on a stream is the limit. In fact, one or two is usually a great plenty. Another exception to this might be where you know you will be unable to again cross this stream either above or below. Now and then roads will lay in such a manner that you can cross a certain stream many times and never be over a mile from the last crossing. However good such a stream might be it is only reasonable to make but one or two sets up and down stream at each crossing.

After the mink season has advanced a bit, many things contribute to scattering them and making them move around a lot. This, of course, especially applies to the average buck mink and not so much to some of the real late litter bucks and the females. Tonight there might be two to four mink in a good food area, and tomorrow night they might be from one to three miles from there on the same or some other stream. Do not think for one minute that mink do no go cross-county from one body of water to another. Thus the reason for good “key sets” on every minky looking stream that you cross. Mink do not have such regular habits as many experts would have us believe, and this especially applies to mink in sections of the country that are very heavily trapped and hunted with dogs. In any area; mink are far more regular in their habits during the fore part of the season.

While keeping your eyes open toward possible mink foods do not overlook spots where growths of weeds and grass are dense with rabbits and mice. Like the fox and the coyote; the mink never gets the credit it should for being a great mouser. Mink do prefer crawfish to any other single item of food. They also like fish, frogs and even thin shelled mussels, but many a mink will simply pick a nice drift or bank den where there is an abundance of mice and rabbits and lay up for weeks at a time. Such mink may have to venture out but a few hundred yards, or much less, in order to make several kills. Some of them will drag several rabbits into a hole, plus a belly full of mice and not even show a whiskery nose past the den or drift hole entrance for weeks. Now, brother, you simply have to trap these mink right at their own doorway, if you are going to get them. They do darn little traveling and leave even less sign. Do not overlook these stay-at-home mink, and do not think for one minute that such minks are all females. I have even found pairs of bucks doing this and living in the same drift. This mink habit is most noticeable, of course, during the late winter and during extended periods of very stormy weather.

If there is no snow on the ground, watch for evidence of rabbits being drug into drifts, old muskrat dens, old groundhog holes, etc. Look back in drift holes and bank dens for tell-tale mink dropping near hole entrances and up under overhangs. Watch for small holes that show much evidence of use; that slick look.

While spot trapping a trapper must always keep in mind that the more time he spends at any one stop the more attention he is drawing. This is another good argument against plastering a short bit of waterway with all too many sets. I have seen would be mink trappers waste sets at the tune of seven sets in less than a quarter of a mile. No mink water is that good. You are not only wasting time and traps, but all too many people have began to take an interest in your car parked there along the road. You want to make as few mink sets as possible at any one stop; take the mink as quickly as possible with carefully fore-planned key sets and move one. During normal weather all the sets at any one stop can usually be pulled the third or fourth trip around. If the bit of stream happens to be exceptionally good, one best set might be left at a well concealed location. This rule allows you to overcome a lot of the John Sneakum troubles, and. what is even more important; it allows to make a much better coverage of mink country. You skim the cream of the crop over a much larger territory. Let the other fellow wear out his boots trying to catch the last damn mink on any particular bit of stream or lake. He won’t get the job done anyway.

As I said before, I cannot go into detail regarding all the little mink habits and I will cover many more as we get along with actual sets. But there is a thing or two more that is rather important to know. Perhaps you already know them, a lot don’t.

Even where the banks of a stream or lake are such that a mink will leave a clear track with every step taken you are not going to see the track of every mink that follows the course of those shores and banks. Nor will you see the dropping of every mink or every kill made. Every good mink stream will have many banks runners working it. Mink will often do a great part of their traveling on the high banks where no track will be made. Here and there these bank runners will cut down to some likely looking drift, or down a hard packed bit of bank to some inviting deep hole. Even there not a single track may be left. Still other mink will swim down larger streams and deep hole areas on the smaller ones; here and there nosing out a bank hole, old muskrat dens or drifts extending to waters edge up under overhangs of down curled banks and tree root overhangs. Again leaving no tracks. A very good example of this was noted by me many years ago along a five mile stretch of creek plus several lost to Sneakums, and at no time did I ever see over four different mink tracks along the shores. This creek was by no means an extreme exception.

I have already mentioned the stay-at-home minks. Keep them in mind. While you are prospecting your lines take a mental picture of every likely looking drift, every old muskrat den, every abandoned bank den made by beaver, old dens tucked away among bank brush and tangles of tree roots. Do not bypass neat holes in jumbles of rocks. These are the types of places mink not only use for stopovers, but are the kind of places they hole up in. I have often trapped them at such den areas where the mink had not moved over fifty feet from the dan entrance for more than two weeks. I have taken others that had not even ventured beyond the entrance, just coming to the doorway for a look now and then. During the early season you will not have to ferret out these spots in search of a taking mink set location, but later on you are very apt to have to, if you wish to keep taking up mink.

Mink very often make their own dens that lead down the bank tops to below the water line. Some of these lead into old caved in ‘rat and beaver dens. The small, and often frost rimmed, holes will indicate them. Along similar streams where there is an abundance of swamp grasses and weed growths these tiny mink dens entrances are very easily overlooked. The tell-tale frost rim is your pointer. Now and then they use hollow trees and snags, usually back in the rotted out root systems. I remember once finding such a den that was no larger than a rat hole made by the common brown barn rat. This led back through a hollowed root and only its very slick appearance indicated mink. I took three mink from that tiny entrance in three traps. Another such tree root den yielded me two mink. Only a couple old crawfish pinchers give me the hint there. These are just examples.

Much has been written about human odor doing or not doing any harm around mink sets. I could write a deal about that, but just to be safe, leave no more than you just have to. Do not, however, get the foolish impression that you have to enter a stream to make a mink set. Just use good common sense. At dry sets use a properly cleaned and treated trap; use clean wool or cotton gloves when making sets. If you have to kneel when making the set pull up your boot tops, or kneel on a small bit of drift wood and then throw it away after completing the set. Always avoid leaving tracks near a mink set. Tracks are especially harmful along the bank near water sets. Young mink do not always fear these disturbances, but rest assured that it spell danger to plenty of the wised up old bucks. In the farmland too much tracking and back scarring will often cause wise mink to leave that particular area and continue to avoid it. Anyway, a smart mink trapper is not going to leave tracks any place along his lines or near his sets. It is simply another way to increase mink losses through giving information to John Sneakum. Of course, tracks cannot be avoided when snow covers the ground, but even then much can be done that will mislead the Sneakums, and the mink, too.

Bill Nelson was a real trapper, to say the least. I don’t think that there is any trapper that has failed to learn a little something from talking to or reading some of Mr. Nelson’s writings. The above article was ran in “The Trapper’s World” in 1948. I’m hoping we can run the follow up articles on this series on mink trapping by Bill. Young trappers (and some older ones) can really learn from this old master’s writings. D.S.

Back to Trappers’ Stories