Updated: Mar 19
On a snowy February day, on my way to the Post Office, I pulled up to a stop sign and looked down to the left at a little creek. A thin sheet of ice covered half of the pool below the culvert. Sitting on the ice, with a minnow clenched between its teeth, was a mink.
I drive passed that creek every day, sometimes twice a day. That little culvert is within 50 yards of six houses. Upstream from the culvert, the creek flows through a brush-choked meadow. Downstream about two hundred yards, it empties into a slightly larger creek. The largest pool on the whole length of the creek is by the culvert, and it’s always loaded with minnows and chubs – the perfect place for a hunting mink.
It’s not often you get the opportunity to observe mink in the wild. The mink saw me but didn’t seem concerned, and I was torn between just sitting there watching it or racing home to get my camera.
I opted for the camera, but when I arrived back at the creek about ten minutes later, the mink was gone. I walked a short ways up and down the creek anyway, following its tracks in the fresh snow. I was amazed how much the mink had actually traveled on dry land. Perhaps the small size of the creek had a lot to do with that. There were only a few little pockets of water where the mink stopped to poke its nose around some roots.
Feeling like I’d missed an opportunity, and kicking myself for not having my camera on hand to begin with, I headed back to the truck. When I got even with the tail end of the pool, the mink popped up from under the edge of the ice less than three feet away.
I’ve encountered mink many times in the past, usually while fishing. Most of those encounters were fleeting glimpses as the mink ducked into some kind of brush pile or dove underwater and disappeared. Once I watched one for about 30 seconds and thought that was an eternity to see a critter as secretive and shy as a mink. But when the mink that February day appeared from under the ice, what unfolded was 45 minutes of pure bliss watching it play and hunt throughout the pool.
Mink are obligate carnivores. Their survival depends on how well they hunt. They do not eat plants, greens, or berries like other animals do. Theirs is a strictly meat diet, primarily minnows, frogs, rodents, and other small vertebrates. They can dive to depths over 16 feet in search of prey.
Mink are solitary and highly territorial animals. Relying on a strictly meat diet, they’re solitary out of necessity – it reduces competition for food sources within their established range. Male mink have much wider ranges than females. The range of one male mink will often overlap those of several females.
Watching the mink hunt throughout the pool below the culvert, I couldn’t determine its sex, although based on size, I’d guess it to be a young male. It looked like it hadn’t missed many meals recently.
Over the years I’ve read numerous books and articles about trapping mink. I’ve interviewed trappers about their favorite sets and techniques. One of these sets is the bottom edge mink set.
To make the bottom edge set, find where the stream bank juts out into the current and the bank meets the stream bottom at a distinct angle. This notch where the bank wall and the bottom meet is where a 110 bodygrip trap is set. The idea is that mink hunt along these edges. Water depth doesn’t seem to matter. I’ve caught mink in water barely deep enough to cover the trap. I’ve also caught them in water five to six feet deep.
As I watched the mink hunt, I realized why the bottom edge set is so effective. The entire 45 minutes I spent watching, the mink basically performed the same small pattern over and over again. It emerged from under the ice at the tail end of the pool where the water was only a few inches deep. Sometimes it nosed around in the current, jumped from rock to rock, or splashed around. Next, it climbed up and crossed the thin layer of ice and slipped back into the pool.
What interested me most, though, was that the mink re-entered the water at the same point every time. A closer look told me why.
The water under the ice was only a few inches deep near shore. The creek bottom sloped away from the bank. I could still see the bottom, maybe a foot deep near the edge of the ice, and then it dropped off sharply to deeper water. When the mink disappeared, I crept as close as I could to the edge and could actually see the mink making big circles around the bottom of the pool. I also noticed that it passed by the same few points on every trip around the pool. One of those points was the bottom edge located directly below where the mink slid off the ice.
Every time the mink reached the far side of the pool, which was deeper, I lost track of it and thought it was gone for good. Minutes passed with no sign of him anywhere. I just sat there in the cold, shielding my camera lens from snow flurries, and tried to keep warm. Sometimes as long as ten minutes went by before the mink emerged once again near the tail end of the pool. After a few minutes of splashing and hopping around, it repeated the routine and climbed back up onto the ice.
Eventually, the mink stayed underwater for such a long period of time that I gave up on it returning. It was snowing harder by then and I still needed to get to the Post Office before closing time. On my way home, though, I stopped at the creek again and spent more time following its tracks in the snow. I backtracked the mink to where it had ventured up the little creek from the bigger one two hundred yards away. In all that distance, the mink had taken many little detours to sniff around brush piles, holes, or places of interest, and paused at only one small pool. The mink lingered there only briefly before continuing to the larger one up by the road.
I learned something very valuable from my encounter with the mink that day – there are places where mink travel and there are places where mink hunt. Where they travel is unpredictable at best. Yes, they are creatures of habit, but when there’s no major structure to speak of, their habits are more erratic. If you want to catch more mink, focus on the places where they spend most of their time, which happens to be the places where they hunt.
When trapping along small creeks and drainages, seek out bigger pools that offer plentiful food sources. The more time a mink spends in an area, the better your chances of catching it. I think back to times I’ve found piles of mussel shells left by mink on stream banks and wonder, how much time did those mink spend hunting the nearby pools to accumulate all those shells? Quite a while, I’d venture to say.
Reflecting on mink traplines I’ve run over the years, I can see that most of my catches occurred in places where mink hunt. Many of them have been in bottom edge sets. Many others were in pocket sets near the head or tail ends of pools below culverts. Based on my 45 minutes of live mink observation, these set locations prove out extremely well.
I can also see why so many of the sets I’ve made over the years never caught a mink – I was focusing on travel routes where mink only pass through on their way to better hunting grounds. Nothing in the area really grabbed their attention or made them want to linger. And if I didn’t catch a mink on its first pass, it might be several days before I had another opportunity. In areas of high trapping competition, that second chance might never come.
Mink are the type of animal that leaves very little sign. Usually the most you can hope for is to find a track in the mud, and many times, especially in rocky terrain, you’ll be hard pressed to find even that. Therefore, it’s a generally accepted idea by most mink trappers I’ve known to always assume that mink are present until proven otherwise.
More often than not, if a place looks good for mink, it probably is good for mink. I’ve passed that little creek thousands of times over the years. Numerous times I’ve thought it looked minky, but discounted it based on its proximity to so many houses, or perhaps its closeness to my own house is what deterred me – maybe I just never thought a mink would be so bold as to live so close to a trapper.
All joking aside, watching the mink at work in the little creek that day was an entertaining and enlightening experience. Later that evening, shortly before dark, a friend sent me a text message that said I’d never guess what he just saw playing around in the creek by the stop sign. Two hours later and the mink was still out there hunting.
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