Holidays are time for muskrat lovers

Friday, January 3, 2003

PEA PATCH ISLAND, Del. -- Shin-deep in the icy muck, Tim Evans reaches a gloved hand into a watery hole and fishes out his treasure: a sodden mass of dark hair and claws, with four tiny, yellow incisors, a long rubbery tail, and beady gray eyes, cloudy in death.

"A nice black rat," Evans says, tossing the muskrat into a feed sack.

It is muskrat season in Delaware, which means good business for trappers and good eating for those who have no objection to dining on rodent.

Trapping season in Delaware starts in December and runs through mid-March, a period when the animals' fur is at its thickest.

"Muskrat is the No. 1 fur-bearer in the state as far as trapping," said Tom Whittendale, a state wildlife biologist.

In the past, muskrat trapping was a valuable activity for Delaware farmers, who used it to supplement their income in the winter and put more meat on the table. Nowadays, it is mostly a hobby for outdoor lovers everywhere from Maryland and Maine to Montana.

Delaware's muskrat harvest totaled about 20,000 last year, down from a recent high of about 49,000 in 1996. The pelts usually are sold to fur buyers for shipment mostly to Russia and are used to make coats, fur trimmings and garment linings.

Delaware trappers get around $3 to $5 for a muskrat pelt, and there is no harvest limit. A total of 185 resident trapper licenses were sold in Delaware last year, roughly half the number from the late 1980s.

Delaware's harvest is a mere fraction of the totals in Pennsylvania and Maryland, where the Eastern Shore community of Golden Hill is home to the annual World Muskrat Skinning Championships. In 2001, Pennsylvania trappers took about 121,000 muskrats, down from 827,000 in 1981, during a fur boom.

"There seems to be less and less interest in trapping because of the fur market itself," said Wade Henry of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "The hides aren't worth much these days."

Evans has a contract with the state to trap muskrats in the Delaware River marshes of Pea Patch Island, in the shadow of the Civil War-era Fort Delaware.

While muskrats are trapped primarily for their fur, rodent eaters start salivating this time of year at the prospect of muskrat meat.

Bailey's Seafood on Route 13 near Odessa advertises muskrats along with oysters and other seafood, and regulars at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Smyrna have been asking when muskrat will start showing up on the menu.

In some parts of Delaware, all-you-can-eat fried muskrat dinners are a tradition for volunteer fire departments.

Wagon Wheel waitress Leona Price said the traditional cooking method is to boil the rat briefly with onions, fry it, then serve it with fried potatoes and stewed tomatoes. But Price does not eat muskrat herself.

"I tasted it, and it's not one of my favorite things," she said.

Jodi Pyle, who works at Bailey's, said the business gets rodent eaters from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The 40-year-old native Delawarean started eating muskrat only about five years ago, after someone served her some.

"She really didn't tell me what it was until I started eating it." Pyle recalled. "I was under the impression that it was roast beef."

At the Wagon Wheel, where a dinner of two muskrats, quartered and on the bone, costs about $13, including side dishes, owner Norm Gallegos said: "It's usually the word 'rat' that bothers a lot of people."


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