LOWER ALLOWAYS CREEK, N.J. - He surveys the steel traps set meticulously the day before, trudging through knee-deep mud and 12-foot-high grass on the marsh. Evidence in the land and the water suggests he should have been successful.
But on this day, at this moment, the muskrats have outsmarted Steve Fisher. And that matters. Because Fisher, 39, doesn't work 12-hour days trapping and skinning simply for fun: During the winter, this is how he provides for his wife and three sons.
"Two rats out of a dozen and a half [traps] ain't good," he says, pulling traps from the narrowest parts of small streams and in holes where they burrow. He suspects a mink, a predator, might have scared the muskrats away. "Ain't good at all."
Just minutes later, though, Fisher turns up eight muskrats in the 18 traps a few hundred feet away.
"That's how it should be," he says with a grin.
Even though Fisher has been trapping since he was 7, the job is still a world of constant uncertainty, an exercise in humility.
"Some places they run," he says before returning to his 14-foot-long 1982 boat, and "some places they don't run."
From Dec. 1 to March 15, Fisher pursues the furry wetland rodents seven days a week, weather permitting.
He skins them and sells their meat and pelts, and he offers those services to other trappers.
When the season ends, Fisher will start crabbing and then plant corn and soybeans on 110 acres of leased farmland.
In this town of 1,770, hundreds of people used to trap to pay the bills. Now, only a handful of people do - the younger generations aren't up for the hard work, trappers say - making Fisher something of an endangered species.
It's not hard to see why. From the marsh in Pennsville, Fisher can see the smoke billowing out of a DuPont chemical-manufacturing plant in the offing. From his house in Hancock's Bridge, he can see PSEG Nuclear's Salem and Hope Creek plants, which employ 1,500 people, 41 percent of them from Salem County, spokesman Joe Delmar said.
The decline of trappers isn't limited to Lower Alloways Creek: In 1981, 4,000 were registered in New Jersey, according to the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. Last year, there were 1,050.
And the muskrat harvest has dropped precipitously since 1985, when the state banned the leg-hold trap. That year, trappers harvested 289,980 muskrats, according to Fish and Wildlife; last year, it was 44,700. They sold for an average of $7.30 each, making muskrat trapping a nearly $330,000 industry in the state.
Pennsylvania trappers see the same trend: The harvest declined from 362,000 in 1985 to 58,200 in 2010.
Prices are up this year to about $8 or $9, and some amateurs are trying to cash in - "it's the new gold rush," Fisher says - but supply is down.
In a good year, Fisher sells up to 19,000 pelts to wholesaler George Munniksma - 6,000 to 9,000 that Fisher trapped himself and 10,000 he bought from others. Munniksma, 67, of Washington, N.J., sells those and about 40,000 other muskrat pelts - a cheap substitute for ranch mink - overseas, primarily to China, where they are made into fur coats and accessories.
Half of Fisher's pelt money goes to the property owners of the 2,500 acres of private marsh where he traps. He keeps the meat money.
People don't just buy and sell muskrats in Lower Alloways Creek: They eat them. Lots of them. The local fire company held its 75th dinner in January, and natives return from Florida, Washington, D.C., and North Jersey to take part.
On a recent Friday night, about 100 people feasted on 450 muskrats - supplied by Fisher - served with sides of potato salad, pepper cabbage, green beans, and beer (or Pepsi for the kids).
"Everybody's not a trapper, but there's a lot of people that eat rats," says Stuart Harmer, a trustee of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, the nonprofit that hosted the dinner. "It's a delicacy to these parts."
Before the night is up, Harmer invites everyone to the following week's dinner: pheasant, rabbit, deer, and "maybe a piece of ham, I don't know."
Fisher shares one of the cafeteria-style tables with his 17-year-old son, Kyle, and other residents. The consensus: These are the best fried muskrats anyone has ever had (or at least in five years).
But the diners are well aware that some might have an aversion to the main dish, which when alive can weigh 2 to 4 pounds and reach 25 inches in length. Muskrats are clean animals, they argue, and feed mostly on vegetation. Unlike other game like rabbits, they don't attract fleas.
The key for a newcomer, Fisher says, "is to get the word rat out of your mind."
Trappers often congregate in Fisher's garage, a "multipurpose" room where muskrat hides hang from the ceiling to dry, and red and gray fox furs are stretched on wooden boards, ready to be sold.
Fisher sits at the end of a 10-foot-long bench, a knife in his hand and a Marlboro pursed in his lips. He skins about 50 muskrats in an hour, alternately tossing the meats into a bucket and the skins in a black crate. His wife, Jamie, and 4-year-old son play nearby.
(Jamie does not trap or eat muskrats. They have an agreement: "She don't cook cabbage," Steve says, "and I don't cook rats.")
Trappers trickle in to sell their meats, pelts, or both. Anthony Fisler, 37, of Gibbstown, brings in two crates with 76 muskrats and two beavers - a very good day. He complains about beavers' running amok, destroying habitats, and chasing away muskrats. "I hope they get into Sweeney's front lawn," he says half-jokingly, referring to State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester).
Minutes later, a smiling Mark Humphreys walks through the door, holding four muskrats in each hand.
The third-generation trapper shows the detailed records his grandfather kept of his muskrat transactions. In the 1926 season, he made $11,299.50, not adjusting for inflation. "He bought and sold farms and properties with muskrat money," says Humphreys, 51.
Listening quietly to the banter, Kyle Fisher, a high school junior, sits opposite his father, also skinning muskrats.
Every day during trapping season, Kyle gets home from school at 3, does his homework, then skins muskrats and stretches hides until 10. He places the skinned muskrats on a tree stump and hacks off their legs and tails with a hatchet, wearing a smock to protect his clothing.
Nearby, Steve and Jamie Fisher reminisce about how the garage frightened Kyle when he was young; he called it the "House of Death."
Now, Kyle says he wants to trap part time when he grows up. He likes the allure of trapping: "You're outsmarting the animal on his own turf."
"Sixty days of predawn awakenings and first-light boat launchings get weary after a while, and the long hours in the fur shed don't make things any better," Jim Spencer, executive editor of the Trapper & Predator Caller trade magazine, writes in this month's issue. "Nothing lasts forever, not even old trappers."
Fisher figures he'll trap as long as he can. Jamie cried for two weeks when he quit his mill job in 2000 to trap and farm full time. "She was used to a paycheck," he says.
But business has stabilized. A few weeks ago, he, Jamie, and Kyle decided to expand. They'll move their shop to a bigger building and start courting more customers at fur-harvest conventions in the fall.
And Fisher recently secured an additional 150 acres to trap next season - for Kyle.
Thinking of his sons, Fisher says: "Hopefully, there's three younger ones to keep the tradition going."