July 24th, 2006

Streamside Companions: The Muskrat
By Neil M. Travis, Montana

The Muskrat, Ondatra Zibethica, is a very common mammal nearly anywhere in North America where water is found. The Muskrat is a large, robust rodent with dense glossy fur, small ears, and a nearly hairless, scaly, laterally flattened tail and partly webbed hind feet. An adult muskrat will be approximately 10 to 14 inches long, excluding the tail, and swims by kicking its hind feet and swishing its tail from side to side.

Muskrats are chiefly vegetarian, although some invertebrates and fresh water mussels are sometimes consumed. They are active all times of the day, but periods of low light during the early morning and late afternoon produce the most activity. Cloudy days, especially in the fall and winter, may cause the muskrat to be active all day.

Muskrats construct rather elaborate structures in certain locations, particularly on lakes and ponds, but occasionally along the margin of streams. This structure, which resembles a small beaver lodge, is constructed of cut vegetation, normally cattails and sedges, and may rise 2 or 3 feet above the water. Inside the structure is a chamber with one or more underwater entrances. The chamber may be used as a sleeping or eating place, and occasionally a female will use it for a family residence. Normally, muskrats dig long, extended tunnels into the banks of their watery habitat. It is this habit that has earned them the nickname "Rat" and has given them many human enemies. This extensive burrowing habit weakens dikes and causes the collapse of stream banks. These burrows may extend up to 20 feet into the bank and contain several chambers which are used for sleeping and raising young. The burrows are kept quite clean since muskrats rarely defecate in their burrows. You will find their oval droppings on rocks and logs, usually some distance from the burrow entrance.

Muskrats tend to be solitary animals, and most burrows contain a single, adult animal. Several may live together amicably during the colder months, but such friendly relations soon come to an end with the coming of warmer weather. Muskrats can become quite aggressive amongst themselves when crowded, and many muskrats fall victim to cars and predators when moving from one location to another. Mass movements of muskrats occur during periods of extended drought, and in spring and fall when large numbers of young muskrats are driven out of the parents territory due to overcrowding.

Muskrats are normally silent except for a nasal moan and some squealing noises made when fighting. An aggravated muskrat may chatter or grind its teeth to show its displeasure.

Muskrats have many enemies, including man. The fur is warm and thick and makes excellent lining and trim for hats and gloves. The grayish underfur is a superb fly tying material, making excellent bodies for both dry flies and nymphs.

Muskrats are normally of little concern to the angler. They do not eat fish, and their habit of eating aquatic vegetation may actually improve fishing in areas of heavy aquatic growth. Their burrowing habit does cause problems, and anglers should be aware of their presence to avoid stepping in one of their collapsed burrows. It is a real jolt to be walking along and suddenly find ones leg knee deep in a muskrat burrow. The experience is less than thrilling.

Despite their propensity to burrow, muskrats are delightful creatures that add to our pleasure while fishing. On heavily fished waters, they become quite accustomed to humans, and will go about their business in close proximity to wading anglers. With a mouth full of aquatic weeds, they are a comical sight.

One can only wonder what they think of us in our waders and vests. ~ Neil M. Travis, Montana

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