by Matthew Breuer
My first encounter with an ermine was one I’ll never forget. I was 9 years old, and my dad had a side business doing cabinet and woodwork in our garage. He had a large pile of scrap lumber that would pile up in the winter behind the garage. Being a young boy, I would often tinker with the endless toys that a pile of wood scraps would provide. One day the rear garage door flung open and my father yelled, “Get out of here!” Out came a weasel, as white as the driven snow with a black tip on its tail. Into the woodpile it went. Between the woodpile and the garage is where it remained for most of the winter, until my dad finally caught it, and put an end to its tomfoolery. From that moment on, I was intrigued by the weasel family.
Aside from a sighting while out hunting, or the rare sighting while driving backcountry roads, I didn’t really have an up close and personal encounter with another ermine until I was much older. Not until I had picked up serious trapping again. Weasels are notorious bait-thieves, and encounters with them became common while on the trapline. I made a few weasel boxes, caught a beautiful buck ermine the first night I set, and instantly knew that I had to get the kids involved.
My son and daughter thought that ermine were the coolest critter I would bring home at the time. Small and feisty, not unlike the kids. I wanted to teach them, from start to finish, how to build a weasel box, set the trap, bait the box, pick set locations, and check traps. We would build boxes together, they would set their own line, and I would provide bait, support, and transportation.
Building the Box
The first thing we needed was lumber. Being the son of a woodworker, I had no shortage of lumber to choose from. A quick trip to the shop to pick out some boards, measure them, and cut them to size and we were off and running. The dimensions for our weasel boxes include a front and rear measuring 6 3/8” long, sides measuring 12” long, a bottom measuring 12” long, and a top measuring 18” long. The top of the box should have an overhang to keep out snow, and it’s a great place to grab the trap when carrying it or placing it. All of the boards are roughly 5 ½” wide, giving the traps we utilize the perfect fit. Using 1 ½” number 6 sheetrock screws, assemble the box, leaving the top piece unattached. Next, using a 2” wood hole bit, drill a hole in the front of the box, slightly above center. This makes the ermine have to climb up into the box, even if there’s a bit of snow. Using a ½” wood hole bit, cut several holes in the back of the box, which will allow for scent to disperse from the box. The last steps are to drill two holes in the back of the box, and the top of the box. Then, using trapping wire, thread it through those holes, attaching the top and back, utilizing the wire as a hinge. Use two more screws, partially screwed into each side. Again, using trapping wire, run a long piece from one screw to the other, leaving some leftover to wrap around one side. This will act as a “lock” to keep the top closed, and keep critters like raccoons from stealing your bait. Attach your trap tag with a screw to the top of the box, and you’re all set.
Traps & Bait
Some people like #1 longsprings in their boxes. We utilize Victor rat traps with the large cheese pan, as they are plenty strong, and provide a large stepping pad for the ermine to set off the trap. They also fit perfectly inside of our custom boxes. The weasel has to go over the trap on the way in or out.
Baits vary, and to be honest, whatever you have for meat will likely work. We’ve used everything from deer fat and scraps, beaver meat, to chicken liver. Lure is optional. Typically unfrozen bloody meat is more than enough to lure in the small but ferocious predators. We simply put a cut of meat in the back of the box, with the trap in the front, near the entrance hole.
Ermine love swampy areas with a lot of small hiding places. Fields, clear-cuts, cedar swamps, marshes, and beaver pond edges are all great options. If your state allows trapping in culverts, utilize them. Weasels love traveling through them chasing rabbits or moving from one area to another without having to cross a road. They also work as a pinch point, forcing the weasels to get close to your set. Simply set the box on the outer edge of the culvert. Be sure it’s not sitting in any water, as you can ruin the box, and you run the risk of it freezing in. We’ve had so much success along culverts that my kids will often proclaim a culvert as a “perfect spot for weasels.”
There are a few types of ermine: the least weasel, the short-tailed weasel, and the long-tailed weasel are the most common. Here in northern Minnesota, we’re after short-tailed weasels, and the other species are rare. All species of ermine change colors to adapt to the weather. In the spring and summer they are brown, with some white on their bellies, and the signature black tip on the tail. In late-fall they begin to turn white, and by Christmas they are as white as snow. This is when their fur is prime.
Skinning and stretching ermine is very simple, but can be tedious due to their small size. Skinning them while they are warm is easiest, and building your own stretchers is recommended. A simple cut of wood and some sanding, and you’re in business. Inside out with the tail stripped is the method. A prime ermine will bring anywhere from $1 to $12 in the current market. The $10-$12 range would be a top lot, prime buck ermine. Expect an average of $2-$4 per ermine. Much like muskrats, weasel trapping is a numbers game. Putting out 30 weasel boxes can more than pay for your gas money along the line on a good day.
Getting Kids Involved
While I enjoy trapping weasels myself, I have now switched gears, and let my kids pick locations, and run their own little weasel line. The only weasel boxes I throw out are near bobcat sets, to deter the weasels from stealing all of my cat bait.
From picking out the perfect board from the scrap lumber pile, to making measurements and building boxes, to going for a beautiful snowmobile ride through the cedars, every step is one a child will remember, and hopefully pass on to kids of their own someday. The smile on their faces when a box has that signature black-tipped tail sticking out of it is priceless.