Friday, February 28, 2014

Cleaning and Preserving a Skull

Cleaning and Preserving a Skull

Beaver skull
Game animals not only provide pelts and meat, but they can also provide great home decoration. Recently I decided to clean and preserve a beaver skull from a 51 pounder that was caught this year. Cleaning skulls for presentation is really pretty easy. You just need to set aside some time to do it. The next time you have a memorable catch or hunt, consider preserving the animal’s skull for a great looking decorative piece.
There are several different ways to clean and preserve a skull. The way that is outlined below is what I have found to be the quickest way, and you still end up with a good looking skull. This is done by boiling and then using hydrogen peroxide as the whitening agent. Using bleach on a skull will eventually deteriorate the skull. Bleach is NOT recommended.

Items that you’ll need:

Knife – used for skinning or removing large chunks of flesh or muscle
Large pot – needs to be large enough to submerge the skull
Small brush – a toothbrush or a soft copper wire brush works well
Coat hanger – used to remove the brain
Hydrogen peroxide – the whitening agent. This can be purchased at any convenience store. I suggest the lower percentages, 1 to 5 percent. 3% works well.
Ammonia – used to degrease the skull before the hydrogen peroxide soak.

The obvious first step is to use your knife and remove the hide from the skull. Once that is complete, use your knife and remove any large pieces of flesh or muscle. It isn't necessary to try and remove every little bit of muscle. The boiling process will take care of the rest.
Beaver skull with hide removed.
Next you'll need to take the coat hanger and bend the hook portion straight. Use this implement to help remove the brain. Insert  the coat hanger into the brain cavity from the back of the skull. Place the skull under running water and stir carefully. Fill the brain cavity with water while you stir. Turn the skull upside down and shake out the contents. Repeat this several times to remove the brain. 

Use a straightened coat hanger to stir the brains. Flush the back of the skull with running water and shake.
Once the brain is removed, place the skull in the pot. Submerge the skull completely in water. Bring the pot to boil. Depending on the size and how much muscle is on the skull, boiling could take a couple of hours. Due to the large jaw muscles that a beaver has, I had to boil my beaver skull for about 2 to 3 hours. If you do this inside, make sure that you have a nice strong fan over the stove that will suck out the fumes. This is especially important if you have a significant-other that bunks with you. If you don't have a good fan, I'd recommend doing this outside.

Check the skull periodically. You want to be able to remove the muscle from the skull relatively easy. I take a fork and pry at the muscle. Once it peels from the bone with littler effort, your skull is ready to be removed.

Once it is easy to remove the muscle from the bone, remove the skull from the pot.
Let the skull cool. Once you are able to handle the skull without burning yourself, start pulling the muscle off the bone. It usually helps if the lower jaw is removed first. Don't get concerned if the teeth fall out of the skull. The boiling process expands the whole skull so it is only natural that some pieces may come loose. Just glue the teeth back in at the end of the whole process.

At this point use your soft wire brush, or similar tool, and lightly scrub at the muscle in the hard-to-reach portions of the skull.

Once the skull is removed from the boiling water, begin to peel the muscle off the bone.

Once the skull has all of the muscles, ligaments, and sinew removed, the next step is to degrease the skull. This is an optional step, but if you are trying to preserve the skull of a naturally fatty animal, I think it is worth it. The leeching of fat out of the skull over time can turn the skull a yellowish color. The degreasing process also helps kill germs and bacteria that may cause your skull to stink.

For degreasing, place your skull in a pot and add 1 part ammonia to 2 parts water. Let the skull soak in the solution for 24 hours.

Soak the skull in 1 part ammonia to 2 parts water for about 24 hours.
What the skull looks like after a 24 hour soak in the ammonia solution.
The next step is to submerge the skull in the hydrogen peroxide. If you have a higher concentration of hydrogen peroxide, you may only want to submerge the skull for a couple of minutes. If you have a lower concentration like 1% to 5%, submerge the skull for several hours to overnight; depending on how white you want the skull. I soaked the beaver skull overnight. I like my skulls white. 

Submerge the skull in hydrogen peroxide.
Once the skull has achieved the desired look, remove it from the hydrogen peroxide. Give the skull a rinse under the sink, then place it in a pot full of fresh water. Let the skull soak in the fresh water for 24 hours. Bone is porous and will absorb fluids. It is important that you submerge the skull in water to get the hydrogen peroxide out of the bone. Let the skull dry. Enjoy your new decorative specimen.

The finished beaver skull.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Trapping Muskrats: Recap and lessons learned

Headed home: Dan the Goose Man has the oars

Island trapping on a time-crunch

Thanks to some scouting that my buddy Dan did during the early days of December, we were able to have a good catch of muskrats by using a boat and trapping the islands in the Allegheny River. Due to time constraints such as work and family, we were only able to set and check traps on the weekends. We would set on Friday night after work and we would pull on Sunday. Our traps would only be out for 2 nights and we knew that our catch numbers would suffer because of this. Our solution was pretty simple. We tried to set every single trap we brought and “landmine” an island with them. When Sunday came, we pulled the line and set our sights on another island. We anxiously counted down the work-days while planning our next trap-setting blitzkrieg for the next island downriver.

Dan headed down to check some muskrat traps
Setting the river from the boat was something that was new to me. I had never approached sets that way in the past. I usually had to walk into all of the areas that I wanted to set. Walking into a location is great, but you are restricted in the number of traps you can set. You can only set as many traps as you can carry. By setting from the boat, we could take a lot more traps. When I consider how short of a time the traps actually soaked, I think we were able to take a decent number of rats. If you add up all of the nights that the traps were actually set, it didn’t even total a full week.

Finding the sign

On the first night of the first island that we set, we were using 110 conibears primarily and were setting runs and what holes we could find. We also were using the conibears for blind sets or bottom-edge sets under the cut banks (figure a).

(fig. a: The bottom-edge set doing its thing. 2 nice rats caught in conibears)
We caught some ‘rats the first night but we were a little surprised that we didn’t do better. The second day we were walking along the bank and we decided to examine a bunch of willows that were growing on the bank at the water’s edge. When we lifted the branches that hung down in the water we could see all kinds of grass clippings and root clippings from where the muskrats were sitting on the bank and eating under the protection of the willow branches. This was our sign. We then knew what to look for once we had found this little muskrat’s sanctuary.

We began to pay better attention to the banks and we were constantly looking for grass clipping, dig marks, and dug up roots. We began to see a pattern. A lot of the ‘rat sign appeared at the points of the islands or on the downriver side of peninsulas (figure b). 

(fig. b: A snow covered rat that was caught at the point of a penisula)
Trapping the big open water of the river was a certainly a different beast than the small farm ponds I had set growing up. We also keyed in on any vegetation that could potentially offer a good hiding spot. Areas that had a little slack water were also great places to look for sign. We would set a 1.5 coil-spring about a 1/2” to 1” under the water. We anchored the trap with heavy gauge wire to either a submerged log in the water, a rock, or staked the trap into the soft mud (figure c).

(fig. c: A welcomed sight. By using 1.5 coilsprings, the trap catches the animal high on the leg, ensuring a good hold.)
 This set was very quick and efficient. It didn’t take long before we found ourselves setting more 1.5 coil-springs than we did 110 conibears. This was a surprise to me simply because as a kid the 110 conibear was my go-to-trap for muskrats.

By the time we had finished trapping our first island, we started to incorporate an appetizing morsel into our set. This was done in order to get the ‘rats to approach our trap exactly how we wanted them to. We used a piece of apple skewered on a stick and smeared a glob of Darin Freeborough’s Muskrat/Beaver food lure on top. This really seemed to do the trick. It got the ‘rats right over our trap pans.

(Dan set a 1.5 in this hollow log at the water's edge. This set produced rats back to back. It was perfect place for the little guys to sit and eat while using the log as cover)
One night after checking traps, I was talking to one of my good buddies on the phone. I was telling him about how we were catching muskrats using the 1.5 coilspring and an apple. My buddy chimed in, “Well, Rabbit always said that an apple is like candy to dem muskrats.”

The Bank Set a.k.a. Ol’ Rabbit’s “apple-like-candy-to-dem-muskrat set”

When I was about 12 years old I had the opportunity to talk to an old-timer who everyone called Rabbit. Rabbit and I started talking one afternoon because I brought in a couple of muskrats that I was going to sell to my local fur buyer. Rabbit told me, in his raspy voice, “use your boot and make a shelf for your trap on the side of the bank. Take an apple and pin it to the bank just above the trap. An apple’s like candy to dem muskrats.” I remember trying Rabbit’s technique later that season with no luck. I never would have guessed that it would take me another 14 years before I would finally figure out what Rabbit meant. Looking back on it now, I was used to setting muskrat holes in the local farm ponds with 110 conibears. That was my typical rat set. I don’t ever recall finding a location that warranted the use of a 1.5 coilspring. I’m sure if I would go back now to those old ponds I would be looking at the banks for signs of grass and root clippings.

(Removing a bonus raccoon from a bank set)
Trappin’ Muskrats next year

I am looking forward to hitting the river again next year. With ‘rat prices being as high as they are, I think I’ll invest in another dozen or so cheap 1.5’s. I’m thinking Dukes. I figure if I catch a ten dollar rat in a Duke, then I paid for that Duke right then and there. Now that Dan and I know what to look for in terms of ‘rat sign, we hope to come back from the river next year with a stack of rats.


End of the Line: 2013-2014 Trapping Season

The 2013-2014 trapping season was definitely a fun one. I’ll probably think of it as the year of the muskrat. That’s certainly not a bad thing considering muskrat prices are holding steady at around $10.00 a pelt. One of my waterfowling buddies, Dan, got into it this year and Ellen helped immensely on the short beaver line. All in all it was a good year for learning and it was a decent catch for water critters. I still need to work on my land (fox and coyote) line. When the winter weather hit, it hit hard. Coons stopped running and one of the routes that we were very excited about setting got socked in with ice pretty early in the season. It didn't help that for the whole month of November I was running around like a crazy person for work. I think I was only able to set one line, which I ran for a little over a week during November.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Roots and Game: Well, let's make a blog

Roots and Game is a blog that we decided to create for the sole purpose of sharing our thoughts and experiences while chronicling some of our outdoor activities. Since we have known each other, we both have thoroughly enjoyed creating, cultivating, and/or harvesting the things provided to us from the natural world. We both are Pennsylvania natives and consider our home to be from the farmlands under the shadow of Chestnut Ridge to the hardwood forests bound by the northern reaches of the Allegheny River.

 Getting advice from other people has helped us in our continued effort to learn as much as we can about what the great outdoors has to offer. We hope that by writing about some of our experiences we can help others explore the natural world also.

We have many great friends and family that enjoy being outdoors as much, if not more, then we do. We have learned a great deal from all of our friends. There are many resources written by people that have PHD’s in many outdoor skills, like wild herb gathering or whitetail hunting, to name a few. We don’t claim to be experts in any of our activities. Our only claim is that we have an affinity for enjoying every moment we get to spend outside.