Muskrats are basically a big rodent that lives in the marsh. Their fur is used to make coats and hats, and their meat has become a staple in many diets along the eastern shore. Joe first started trapping these furry critters when he was just 14, because well, that’s just what you did growing up along the Nanticoke River.
“Friends, neighbors, family, and whoever had a piece of marsh, you’re either trapping with or on at the time. My grandfather had a lot of friends that trapped and he trapped,” explains Joe.
Joe uses spring loaded traps to catch the muskrat. These traps do not use bait. Instead, the trapper find leads, which are basically underground roads for the muskrats. In order to spot these leads, you need what Joe calls traditional knowledge, “It’s knowing where the rat is going to be or where it’s going – either to or from.”
The trap usually sits overnight before they’re checked. I had the chance to help Joe check a few traps he set along little off shoots of the Nanticoke River.
On a typical day, Joe can clear upwards of 200 traps on his own. With me slowing him down, we were looking to clear about 10. All I ended up doing was pulling up a trap, then giving it to Joe to take off the muskrat. I’m not sure how much help I was, but I know I had a lot of fun.
After clearing a portion of traps, Joe would move up the bank a few hundred feet and reset the trap.
Along the eastern shore you’ll find either black or brown rats. While the black fur used to bring in more money, the practice of coloring and dying the fur has made it all equal. What can effect the price is what shape the fur is in. Joe says if there’s nicks or cuts in, it the value decrease. These imperfections can be caused by fights with other muskrats or human error during the skinning process.
While this work my be dirty and time consuming, for Joe it’s well worth it. Joe says, “Any time I put my hands on the water it’s a picture of time that’s slowly slipping away from us as waterman, as individuals, through regulation, through over management, through government. A lot of the stuff is slipping away and it’s one of the things that I can say is I’m at the age where I’m one of the last that can still enjoy a piece.”