You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Meet the N.J. muskrat trappers keeping a lonely, little-known tradition alive 3/1/2023 Peter Genovese,
A milk crate holds part of the days catch of muskrats in Greenwich, NJ on Friday, February 10, 2023. © Dave Hernandez | For/ A milk crate holds part of the days catch of muskrats in Greenwich, NJ on Friday, February 10, 2023.

The 17-foot aluminum boat scoots across the Cohansey River against a backdrop of blue sky and wispy clouds. Cord grass sways and snaps in a brisk breeze.

John Zander, of Zander Furs, on the Cohansey River © Dave Hernandez | For/ John Zander, of Zander Furs, on the Cohansey River

At the helm is John Zander, a trapper whose dad, Harry, owns Zander Fur in West Deptford, the country’s largest muskrat dealer.

“Middle of February, you’re catching your best muskrats,” Zander explains. ”They’re heavy, have thicker fur.”

It may come as a surprise to most, but muskrats are a big deal in New Jersey. The thick, furry animal (not a rat, but indeed a rodent) is by far the most trapped animal in New Jersey. A total of 12,955 were trapped in 2021-2022, up from 7,192 in 2020-2021, according to the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. Raccoons (4,186), red fox (3,197) and grey fox (153) were the next most heavily-trapped animals in 2021-2022.

John Zander, of Zander Furs, heads back to the marina after collecting 27 muskrats in Greenwich, NJ on Friday, February 10, 2023. © Dave Hernandez | For/ John Zander, of Zander Furs, heads back to the marina after collecting 27 muskrats in Greenwich, NJ on Friday, February 10, 2023.

Most of the state’s muskrat trappers work the abundant marshes and wetlands in South Jersey. The Cohansey, which starts in Salem County and dips and dives through Cumberland County like a crazed snake, is prime trapping territory.

Muskrat dinners at firehouses and fraternal organizations are an annual ritual in South Jersey (we’ll visit one later) but the overwhelming number of muskrats are trapped for their fur. Zander Fur bought about 200,000 muskrat pelts last year, most from the Midwest.

John Zander, of Zander Furs, brings up a trapped muskrat in Greenwich, NJ on Friday, February 10, 2023. © Dave Hernandez | For/ John Zander, of Zander Furs, brings up a trapped muskrat in Greenwich, NJ on Friday, February 10, 2023.

About 90 percent of those will end up in China, for jackets, coats and linings. John Zander talks to someone in the fur business in China “almost every day” and has flown to China “many many times” over the years.

Zander Fur started in the family basement In the 1930s. Zander’s dad took him out trapping when John was just two years old. “He’d sit me on his shoulders," Zander, 40, recalled. “Even my grandma would take me out to trap."

He took his four-year-old nephew out around Christmas; they collected 60 rats.

The toothy rodent is painted on Lower Alloways Creek fire engines. It’s the Lower Alloways Creek School District’s mascot. A local convenience store is called Muskrat Mall.

“I’ve had people come up to me in Wawa, (asking) ‘can you sell me some muskrat meat?’” Zander says, laughing.

“Muskrat Love,” the million-selling 1976 pop hit from Captain and Tennille and maybe the sappiest love song ever, didn’t do muskrats any favors, but no matter. In South Jersey and much of the nation (48 states have muskrat trapping seasons), “rats” are somewhat lovable, vaguely huggable and, to those not adverse to chowing down on a rodent, wonderfully edible.

No, they don’t taste like chicken.

“Like oysters," Zander says. ”It can be a little spicy."

“Roast beef,” adds Tim Burns, helping cut up muskrats in preparation for the Lower Alloways Creek fire department’s muskrat dinner on Saturday.

“If you honestly had to compare it to something other than muskrat, the best would be duck," says Kyle Fisher, who organizes the dinner.

Muskrats are hardy little critters. They can hold their breath underwater for 10 to 12 minutes. Adult muskrats weigh two to four pounds and are about 22 to 25 inches long, including their nearly 7 to 11-inch hairless tail, used for swimming.

They are vegetarians, happy with plant roots, buds and stems, and largely nocturnal. Native Americans depended on them for food, and the muskrat played an important role in local lore and legend. Several tribes, including the Algonquin, credit the muskrat for helping to create the earth.

Trapping requires knowledge of weather, tides and muskrat movements. Zander will set dozens of traps in the morning, at low tide, which enables him to plant the bamboo stakes holding the stainless steel traps firmly in the thick black mud. He’ll return the next day, at high tide, and pull them out.

If he’s lucky, a muskrat will be dangling in the trap, which snaps shut when the animal brushes against a spring, killing it instantly. His one-day trapping record: 106. There is no limit on the amount you can trap. The season runs from Dec. 1 to March 15 in South Jersey, and Nov. 15 to March 15 in North Jersey. The average age of trappers nationwide: 48, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ninety eight percent of trappers are male.

A producer once approached the Zanders about doing a muskrat trapper reality show.

“We shot it down,” Zander says. “They asked, ‘does everyone get along?’” The answer was yes, which is not what the would-be reality show was hoping for.

The dinner

Thump thump thump thump.

The sound of a cleaver separating meat from muscle echoes in the kitchen at Lower Alloways Creek Fire and Rescue in that Salem County town.

Kyle Fisher — camo-colored hoodie, pocket knife clipped to a pants pocket — pulls out one skinned muskrat after another from a milk crate, places it on a wooden board and hacks away, throwing the animal’s legs and back portion into a tray, dumping the rest in another.

Thump thump thump thump.

Fisher’s bare hands and forearms are splashed with blood; it looks like he just walked off the set of a slasher movie.

Asked why he’s not wearing gloves, the 27-year-old trapper replies, “We’re not afraid of blood around here."

This is one of several muskrat dinners held annually in Salem and Cumberland counties. The Salem Fire department holds one, so does the VFW Post in nearby Elsinboro, and Eagles Club #1966 in Salem. The latter also has held a wild beaver dinner.

“Then you’ll have people do (muskrat) dinners for friends and family, they might cook 50 rats," Fisher says.

About 225 people are expected at the fire department’s muskrat dinner Saturday. It’s been held for the past 90-some years, except for 2018, when a shortage of volunteers forced its cancellation. It’s a big operation — 12 staffers in the kitchen, eight waitresses, and Fisher, the organizer, making sure everything’s running smoothly.

Tickets are $35, which entitles you to all-you-can-eat muskrat, plus pickled beets, cabbage and potato salad. Fisher figures each person will eat four muskrats’ worth of meat, which means he and his crew will need to chop up 900 pounds of muskrat beforehand.

The prep work is complicated: First comes the slicing and dicing. Then the meat is soaked in salted water for 20 minutes, and placed in a freezer. The day before the dinner, the meat will be par-boiled, then placed in the fridge. Come dinnertime, they’re tossed into the deep-fryer. The kitchen is a madhouse then, with volunteers scurrying about cooking and fixing plates of food.

“Once we get busy, this gets as busy as any two-star Michelin restaurant," Fisher says. “It gets chaotic in here."

His dad, Steve Fisher, ran a fur business for many years. Kyle took over the operation in 2017.

In case you’re wondering, you can’t just go out and buy a bunch of traps and start trapping. In New Jersey, trappers must first pass a two-day course, one day in the field, one day taking a multiple-choice written test, before acquiring a license.

“They’ll take you out in the woods, show you different trails, go over in detail the different types of traps," Fisher explains. “They’ll sit you down with the Fish and Wildlife regulations. There are hands-on instruction on skinning and processing. It’s a very in-depth two-day course. You can’t just go out and throw a dozen traps in the woods willy-nilly."

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated Zander Fur’s product goes to a fur auction house in Canada. That is incorrect. It is shipped directly overseas to customers. We regret the error.

Thank you for relying on us to provide the journalism you can trust. Please consider supporting with a voluntary subscription.

Peter Genovese may be reached at On Twitter, @petegenovese. On Instagram, @peteknowsjersey and @themunchmobile.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon