[Reprinted from original]
Jim Omler has been a muskrat trapper since childhood.
For years, he’s caught and sourced muskrat for several local dinners, including the annual Monroe Boat Club Muskrat Dinner, which is planned for 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at the club, 7932 Bolles Harbor Drive. Doors will open at 4 p.m. The public is welcome. Tickets are $18 each and must be purchased in advance. A full bar and other hot and cold beverages will be available. For tickets, call the boat club at 734-243-8935 or Brad at 734-790-7175.
The Monroe Boat Club's dinner has been a tradition for decades, and Monroe County people have been eating muskrat for centuries.
Omler, 70, of Newport is one of the few remaining area muskrat trappers. He’s been trapping for 60 years and has been in the muskrat meat business for 40 years.
“My dad taught me when I was 10, and I’ve been doing it every year since. I enjoy trapping and hunting. I just like being on the marsh,” Omler said.
He sets his traps in late fall at Pointe Mouillee State Game Area.
Twenty years ago, about 20 people would get permits to trap at Pointe Mouillee. Now, there are five or fewer each year.
“The last three to four years, it’s been five die-hards. The kids don’t want to do it anymore. It’s work,” Omler said.
He can never catch enough to meet area demand.
“I buy a lot of muskrat. I can’t catch as many as I need. Twenty years ago, I’d sell 4,000 a year. I have a source in the Irish Hills. There is a big trapper out there,” Omler said. “I had a source in Ohio, at a fur trade post. I’d get 1,800 to 2,000 at a time. That source dried up when he died.”
Last summer’s drought means a smaller local muskrat population this year.
“There was no water all summer. Muskrat won’t breed if they don’t have water. All creeks are dry and marshes are extremely low. The places I trap are dry,” Omler said.
Last year Omler trapped about 160 muskrat, which he said is low compared to many trappers.
“There are guys who trap 300 to 700 at a time,” he said.
This year, he only got seven.
“I do it more because I enjoy it,” he said.
In addition to their meat, muskrat are prized for their fur.
“Fur prices are down. Ninety percent goes to China, Russia or Europe. But with Russian sanctioned, the big demand went out the window. It might be a good thing (that populations) are down. There won’t be an excess, and it could bring the prices up,” Omler said.
In recent years, Omler has seen a decline in the number of local muskrat dinners. This year, in addition to the Monroe Boat Club, there will be dinners in Erie and Newport. There once were several more.
“The Monroe Boat Club is the only one I have (this year). The River Raisin National Battlefield, it’s the first year they are not having a dinner. I used to do St. Charles, Carleton Firemen and St. Anne’s. St. Charles, that was a huge dinner with 950 muskrat,” Omler said.
He thinks the decline has to do with staffing.
“Eighty percent can’t get the help. Preparing muskrat is a big deal. There are five musk glands in the meat. Those have to come out or you won’t want to eat the animal. There’s a lot of preparation. It’s a two- to three-day ordeal. You need 12-15 guys in the process, from cleaning and getting them prepared,” Omler said.
The process includes soaking the frozen dark meat in salt water. Omler likes to soak the meat a second time. Then, most of the fat must be removed before the meat is par-boiled before the final cook.
“They are cooked on a stove in cast iron. You have to use a cast iron skillet. I cook them in corn oil and butter to put a crust on them,” Omler said.
For a big dinner, the cooking is done in advance and meat is held in roasters. Muskrat is typically served with corn and seasonings.
“There’s quite a bit of time in preparing a muskrat dinner,” Omler said.
The trapper hosts a few small dinners himself.
“I cook up two to three small dinners. I’m in a travel trap league, and I cook for the guys. I cook muskrat at the house,” Omler said. “If they are cooked right, muskrat are good. It tastes a little bit like roast beef. It’s very tender. It’s the cleanest animal out there. All they eat is vegetation. The don’t eat fish or crayfish. They are basically like a cow. Chickens will eat anything you throw out there.”