(Posted for May - June, 2008)
Count The Coyotes
by Hal Sullivan
(This article was first published in "Fur-Fish-Game" December, 1992)
we left our truck and started walking towards the woods, a flock of buzzards
erupted from a large sycamore in front of us. It was a warm September
afternoon, and the green foliage on the tree had secreted a number of these
carrion eaters. They flapped and squawked their way to safety in numbers
greater than we could count.
I already knew
what the attraction was for these birds although I had never seen them here
in such numbers. We were on a large dairy farm, and the tree stood on the
edge of a gully that served as the "graveyard" for deceased bovines. We had
to pass through the graveyard on our way into the woods to hunt squirrels.
We didn't tarry long because in the hot afternoon sun, the stench was nearly
unbearable. But I didn't have to study long to determine that buzzards were
not the only carrion eaters feeding on the dead cows. Coyote sign was also
About two months
later, we were on our way back to the graveyard. It was November, trapping
season was now open and the landscape had changed considerably. The leaves
and buzzards had both departed for the season. The surrounding fields that
had once been corn and soybeans were now barren, plowed ground. Now the
graveyard had become a primary and vital food source for the coyotes. It was
hard to tell how many coyotes were dining here, but the numbers seemed
sufficient to classify it as a pack.
There is nothing
unusual about a pack of coyotes feeding on dead cows, but somehow I couldn't
help feeling out of place. I am a lifelong Ohio resident, and I was raised
on the notion coyotes are an animal of the western plains. In the period
covering the last ten or fifteen years, that geographic limitation has been
invalidated. Coyotes proliferate in the eastern half of the country, and I
could scarcely believe that I was standing in my native Ohio, contemplating
putting irons on a pack of coyotes. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz summed it up
best when she said "Gosh, Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."
Coyotes will be a fact of life for the next generation of Ohio trappers, and
I had one along with me who was bound and determined to catch a coyote.
Although he just broke into the rank of teenager, my son Eli is a fairly
proficient trapper. We had already put out a few sets before we got to the
graveyard. I had done some coaching and offered a little advice, but he was
pretty much on his own at this point.
A tractor road
led across the barren fields to the graveyard and sign showed this was the
main travel route for the coyotes. We stopped the truck a hundred yards out.
I knew it would be unwise to set traps right among the carcasses. We could
probably catch a coyote there, but doing so might frighten the others away
from the site.
I walked the lane
and picked out locations for four sets. At the graveyard, I picked up a
bleached vertebra from an adult cow. We walked back to the truck, got two
traps each and started putting in sets. Eli put in the first set right
beside the truck. You must remember this lane was often traveled by farm
vehicles, and the coyotes would find nothing unusual about our parking spot.
Using the cow
vertebra, Eli put in a flat set. The ground had been broken with a chisel
plow, but on exiting the field the tractor wheel had packed down a narrow
path that paralleled the lane. Eli picked out a relatively clear spot along
this path and bedded a #1.75 coil in place. "Fox or coyote?" he asked from
force of habit as we had been making sets for different animals at different
stops. "Oh," he said sheepishly, "coyotes, right?" I nodded in agreement.
To finish his
set, he stuffed some wool in the center of the vertebra and let it suck up a
few drops of coyote gland lure. He studied the position of his trap and
placed the vertebra about twelve inches from the pan of the trap. Had the
set been for fox, he would have placed the attractor about eight inches from
the trap pan. "How's that?" he asked. "Pretty good," I answered, "but a
coyote might pick up your bone and run off with it." To preclude this, Eli
got a large flat rock from the field and laid it on the bone so that any
prospective bone snatcher would have to go around to the proper side of the
set before it could get to the prize.
We went about
twenty yards closer to the graveyard, and Eli stopped to build a dirthole in
the grass on the opposite side of the lane. I continued down the wheel mark
to a large rock that stuck up prominently above the plowed ground. I
hollowed out a small hole underneath the rock and dumped in a shot of food
lure. Making sets in plowed ground was very easy because the dirt was loose
and dry. Staking can sometimes be a problem under these conditions, but I
don't have any trouble. All my canine traps are equipped for double staking.
There are very few if any conditions under which crossed eighteen-inch
stakes will not hold a coyote. In solid, firm, ground crossed twelve's will
Eli was still
working on his dirthole, and I crossed over to his side of the lane. The
last set at this location would be a post set. I picked up a ten-inch piece
of corn stalk from the plowed field and planted it just off the edge of the
lane. I put a trap about twelve inches out from the corn stalk and
rearranged the ground cover so it was back in its natural state. I gave the
corn stalk a shot of coyote urine to complete the set.
We now had four sets that zig-zagged across the lane leading into the
graveyard. As viewed from the approach, the first set, the flat set with the
vertebra, was on the right. Further on and to the left was a dirthole. Next,
on the right, was the big rock set. The set closest to the graveyard was the
post set, and it was on the left side of the lane.
The other end of this lane intersected with the main north-south lane
running through the farm. We turned on this lane, and drove about fifty
yards to a spot where a low ridge crossed the lane. I was fairly certain we
would catch the attention of any coyote entering the graveyard or traveling
that lane. But I also considered the fact that some coyotes might cross the
farm and not head directly for the free lunch. This north-south lane was a
natural travelway from a river to the hills about a mile to the north.
The low ridge that crossed this lane provided an unusual feature in the
landscape which made it a good location for a set. One side of the lane
boarded the same plowed fields adjacent to the graveyard which we could see
in the distance. On the other side, was a low cropped hay field. The ridge
also offered an added attraction as a shortcut across the hay field. Eli put
another dirthole in the hay field. On the opposite side of the lane was a
small tangle of corn fodder left by the plow. I improvised a set in by
scratching out a notch in the pile to hold my trap, and hiding a few drops
of lure in the fodder at the head of the notch.
always runs high the first few days on the trapline. When we left home to
check traps the next morning, all Eli could talk about was coyotes. I
figured over the next week or so, we might catch a couple of these gray
dogs, and it was entirely possible that we might nail one overnight. But
I've been at this a while, and I was quite prepared to check empty traps
The dairy farm was in the middle of our schedule, and it was mid morning
when Eli opened the gate so we could get in. It was quite a drive across the
farm to where our traps were set. We weren't half way there when we spotted
someone, or something, headed down the lane toward our traps. Eli picked up
the field glasses, and I pressed down a little harder on the accelerator.
"What do you
see?" I asked.
I glanced over at
Eli. We were making a pretty good clip bouncing down the farm lane. Eli had
a death grip on the field glasses. But with no hands to steady himself, he
was bouncing up and down on the seat with the rest of our junk. Needless to
say, this made it very difficult to focus binoculars on the distant object.
Finally, as we drew closer, he ascertained it was a human form. We crossed
the north-south lane without even bothering to glance at the sets on the
ridge and made the short jag that put us on the lane to the grave yard. By
now, I could tell it was someone walking toward our traps, and I thought I
could make out some movement in the plowed ground. "I think we've got
something," I told Eli.
"Then you'd better hurry up," Eli said still fumbling with the binoculars,
"He's got a gun." Eli trained his attention on the sets. "Yeah," he said
between bounces. "I think we've got a fox."
By this time, I
could definitely see a critter in the first trap. It started moving around
as the man with the gun got closer to it. It did resemble a fox, but it was
way too big. "We've got a coyote," I told Eli. But the words had not left my
mouth when I saw a second coyote jump up in one of the sets beyond.
It was Saturday,
and I assumed a rabbit hunter had spotted our coyotes. Although I assumed
there would be no dispute over possession of the animals, I was not
particularly enthused about skinning coyotes that had been dispatched at
close range with a shotgun. But as we got closer, I recognized the figure
walking down the lane. It was Randy, the fellow that runs the dairy. He has
shot a couple of coyotes on this farm. I knew his caliber of choice was
30-30, and on a trapped coyote this would be no less effective than a
shotgun. But when he saw us coming, he stopped to wait.
Eli had caught
one coyote in the flat set with the vertebra. The middle two sets were
undisturbed, but the corn stalk post set nearest to the graveyard held a
second coyote. Although Eli and I had to gang up on them, this was a
sure-enough double. I was more than surprised; Eli was berserk.
"I thought we
might catch a coyote here," I joked with Randy, "but I didn't think we'd
"Three," he said.
For a second, I wasn't sure Randy had miscounted the coyotes on hand, but
then he continued, "You've got one on that ridge up there," he pointed to
our sets in the other end of the field on the north-south lane. "I already
We were prepared
to catch coyotes. We made sets targeted to catch coyotes. We expected to
catch coyotes. But we weren't ready for this. Had Randy not dispatched the
coyote in the ridge set, from a point somewhere about halfway down the lane,
we would have been able to see three coyotes at one time in sets that were
less than twenty-four-hours old.
We dispatched the
two live coyotes at the graveyard and remade the sets. Randy rode back to
the ridge top with us where we retrieved the third coyote. I was pleased to
find that Randy had not shot the animal but instead had stunned and
asphyxiated it. The coyote had found the dirthole Eli put in the hay field.
I might be able
to make the case that this was a triple on coyotes. We could see all the
sets from one spot, but we couldn't have possibly got them all in one
picture so I won't argue too strongly. But still we caught three coyotes at
this farm on our first check, and that must count for something.
I'm also willing
to throw in a dose of good luck to account for these coyotes. But itís not
all luck. One thing that tipped the odds in our favor was targeting the sets
for coyotes. A lot of eastern trappers are catching incidental coyotes in
fox sets, but if you are trying to catch coyotes, you'll have better success
if you make coyote sets. The sets we used were standard canine sets we
simply adjusted the trap placement to accommodate coyote. For fox we place
the trap pan about seven inches from the attractor. For coyotes we use a
placement of twelve inches. Also, we used coyote lure or coyote urine at
most of these sets, although the coyote on the ridge went for a baited
dirthole with red fox smells.
Fast Forward -- Today I rely more on foot
guides than I do the actual measurement of the traps from the attractor. But
I still place a trap targeted for fox closer to the attractor than one
targeted for coyotes.
also increased our odds by offering a variety of sets, and setting a number
of traps. Each coyote was caught in a different type of set. That doesn't
prove anything, but at the graveyard we had a coyote in the first set and a
coyote in the last set, which means that one of them walked by and refused
two sets before it got caught.
As we left the
farm, I was still having a little trouble believing what had just
transpired. A triple on coyotes just doesn't happen in the Buckeye State.
Things like this can cause a man to talk to himself. I guess Eli must have
caught me mumbling and snapped me out of my trance when he said, "Kansas? No
dad this isn't Kansas, this is Ohio. And who's Toto?"
For more information on trapping canines:
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(Posted for March - April, 2008)
SHADES OF RED AND GRAY
by Hal Sullivan
(This article was first published in "Fur-Fish-Game" January, 1993)
A friend of
mine in the lure business had asked me if I would try a new experimental fox
lure on my line. He felt it would be attractive to both red and gray fox,
and he knew that I trapped both species. I told him that my primary target
was going to be red fox, and I was willing to give the lure a try on them.
When I got into the field that fall, I found the red fox population had been
decimated by some type of disease that struck late in the summer. Still, I
felt an obligation to test the man's lure. The gray fox appeared to have be
unaffected by this disease, so I turned my attention toward them.
From this, you
might gather that red fox trapping and gray fox trapping are two separate
things. In fact, there are differences in these two species of fox and the
methods used to target one or the other. Always bear in mind that despite
these differences, the red fox and gray fox are both fox. The general rules
of fox trapping - clean, well-bedded, traps and properly constructed sets -
apply equally to both species.
I think it is
important to point out that there are probably more similarities in trapping
these two kinds of fox than there are differences. It is not at all unusual
to take both kinds at the same set. They are similar in size, and their
hunting territories often overlap. While trap placement and set location are
two of the keys in targeting either type of fox, you would hardly be
prevented from taking one in a set that was made for the other.
beginning, a fox trapper can concentrate on learning the fundamentals
without regard to species. Again, the similarities between red and gray fox
make either one susceptible to any of the generic "fox" sets. In the early
stages of a trapper's development, it is major goal to catch any fox, let
alone worry about what kind they are. But once you gain a little experience,
you may be able to recognize the subtle differences between red and gray fox
and increase your catch of both.
While both fox
have the same body shape and are roughly the same size, they do have other
physical differences. In some instances, this helps to account for the
different behavior patterns of the fox. As a general rule, red fox are found
in more open country, while gray fox prefer a brushy habitat. If you examine
the fur of the different animals, you find that the red fox has a soft
delicate fur which would not hold up well in the brush. The gray fox has a
course pelage that will stand the rigors of its brushy environment
Here, you can
begin to target your sets toward a specific type of fox. If you are setting
in open areas, you have an increased chance of running across a red fox. If
you are setting in the brush, it is likely that a gray fox will be the first
to visit your set. You can adjust your set accordingly, or choose your
locations to give you an increased chance of catching one type of fox.
Fast Forward -- With the expansion of the coyote, red
fox are found in more brushy areas these days.
When I was
testing the lure, I moved all my sets into the brushy areas. I knew that was
the best place to catch gray fox. I could have made sets in the open areas
too because the gray fox were working into the habitat vacated by the
diseased-diminished red fox. However, there were a few red fox left that
would serve as breeding stock for future seasons, and I wanted to avoid
catching any of them. By putting my sets in the brush, I took all the gray
fox I wanted while avoiding the reds.
physical difference between red and gray fox is the size of their feet. Gray
fox have a small, round, cat-like paw. Red fox have a fat and wide paw
similar to a domestic dog. This also may be an environmental adaptation
giving the red fox an advantage getting around on flat ground and especially
in the snow. The small paw of the gray fox gives it an advantage on logs and
between the size in these two animal's paws can have an influence on what
size trap you use. The #1 1/2 is a good trap for gray fox and is certainly
acceptable for reds. If you were trapping mainly for red fox, the #1 3/4
would be a good trap, but a trap any larger than this will not be good for
gray fox. While #2 traps may be good for coyote and okay for red fox, if you
expect to be taking many grays along with the other two canines, you should
consider compromising with the #1 3/4 traps. And if you are targeting gray
fox exclusively, use the #1 1/2.
physical differences there is a difference in behavior patterns between red
and gray fox that concerns holding them in a trap. Gray fox tend to be more
aggressive and will struggle harder when they are confined in a trap. Red
fox can be caught in the larger size traps, usually with the desired
across-the-pad hold, and will only fight the trap for a short while. A gray
fox, no matter how it is caught, will make a stronger effort to escape. For
this reason alone, it is important to make a good pad catch on gray fox.
Larger traps with a wider jaw spread may grip the smaller-footed gray fox
too high on the leg causing greater discomfort, more struggling, and
possible injury to the animal.
tendencies toward aggressive verses shy behavior also play a part in
catching these animals. Ask any fox caller which animal responds more
readily to a call - the answer will come up gray every time. Also, gray fox
are taken more often in sets made for other animals, like coon or mink, even
though these sets might be crudely constructed. Red fox, however, exhibit a
more cautious approach to an unusual situation such as a call or a trap set.
difference does exist, it should not be overemphasized because both animals
approach a trap set with some degree of caution. Sets made for red fox
usually work best when they are made with little disturbance to the
surrounding area, and appear completely natural when they are finished. This
is a good rule to follow when trapping either species of fox, and it is not
meant to imply that poorly made sets will serve for gray fox.
I make sets for
gray fox with the same care that I do sets for reds; however, I am more
prone to use natural, or unnatural, conditions to force a gray into the
trap. Red fox do not like to be crowded, but gray fox are susceptible to
forcing. I assume this has something to do with the nature of their
preferred habitat. Of course, I can make sets for grays in brushy habitat,
where forcing conditions are better. Most of the time, this forcing includes
just a couple of guide sticks or stones to steer the gray onto the trap pan.
If the set may take either kind of fox, I hold back on the forcing so the
reds will not be spooked. It is not absolutely necessary to use the forcing
on the grays, but it can be advantageous.
forcing guides, I also use a slightly different trap placement for reds than
I do for grays. For red fox, I generally set the pan of the trap eight
inches from the attractor (from the center of the hole in a dirthole set).
Gray fox have a slightly shorter stride, and tend to step in closer to
investigate a smell. If I am making a set at a gray fox location, I move the
trap closer. I usually move the trap nearer to the attractor by an inch or
so. Trap placement gives you a slight edge in taking one type of fox over
the other, but you still stand a good chance of catching the non-target
species if it shows up at the set.
baits and lures is always controversial, and nowhere more so than in fox
trapping. I personally don't see a very great difference in the types of
bait that are attractive to red or gray fox. Red fox may be slightly more
attracted to a tainted meat bait, while gray fox may prefer fresh. Gray fox
may be slightly more attracted to non-meat food lures than reds. If the bait
fits the season and the location of the set, it will likely attract either
kind of fox.
another matter. You will have better success if you match the lure to the
type of fox you are targeting. If there is an equal chance of catching
either type of fox, or you are not targeting one species, red fox lure can
be utilized. Gray fox will readily investigate red fox lure, but red fox may
shy away from gray fox lure. Again, this is a matter of degrees, and I have
caught plenty of fox using the opposite kind of lure. But when strictly
trapping for gray fox, I use a gray fox lure.
As for urine, I
must admit to using red fox urine almost exclusively for both types of fox.
The main reason being that red fox urine has a much stronger odor than gray
fox urine, and its smell will carry farther and last longer. Gray fox seem
to be readily attracted to red fox urine. It is only fair to point out that
I don't use urine at every fox set I make, nor do I sprinkle urine randomly
around a set as a "suspicion remover". When I do use urine at a fox set, it
is ordinarily red fox urine, but I will use some gray fox urine as a
Red fox and
gray fox are different, but not as different as some might have you believe.
Some trappers will argue that the gray fox is in the cat family. However,
both red and gray fox are wild canines that exhibit the same general
behavior patterns. As such, both are subject to the same general approach
that falls under the classification of fox trapping. In fact, the term "fox
trapper" is usually applied without question as to the color of the fox.
are satisfied to practice a general form of fox trapping, but as experience
and proficiency increase, the fox trapper can recognize the need to more
specifically target one animal or the other. You can orient your line to
take only one species of fox, or you may increase your catch of both red and
gray fox by adjusting your different sets to suit the location and habitat.
Trapping any fox is a challenge, and there are no black and white rules for
either one, only shades of red and gray.
For more information on trapping canines:
Canine Books and Videos
(Posted for January - February, 2008)
RIGGING #1.75'S FOR COYOTES
by Hal Sullivan
(This article was first published in "Fur-Fish-Game" December, 1992)
will probably agree that the #1.75 is minimum hardware for coyotes. However,
the traps will function effectively for these animals and are a good choice
where fox and coyote might be taken concurrently in the same trap. Coyotes,
however, are larger and stronger than fox, and they will test the trap and
its fastening to the limit. Still, with these elements taken into account,
the #1.75 when properly rigged will catch and hold coyotes.
consideration is given to the size of the coyotes paw. The coyote has a
larger foot than the fox. For use strictly on coyotes, a #2 or #3 trap has a
more optimum jaw spread than a #1.75. To take coyotes in the smaller trap,
the animal must be well centered between the jaws, and fully committed to
the trap when it takes that final step. To accomplish this, the pan tension
on the #1.75 should be adjusted to about two pounds. This tension is light
enough to still take fox, yet heavy enough to make sure the coyote is well
into the trap before it fires. You can check the pan tension with a quart
plastic bottle (a dishwashing liquid bottle works well) full of water. A
quart of water weighs two pounds.
Fast Forward -- This story was written before I
developed the Sullivan Trap Tester for testing pan tension.
Once you have a
coyote in a trap, you have to hold on to it. Some trappers add an extra set
of coil springs to their traps to speed them up and give them more holding
power. Personally, I'm not a fan of 4-coiled traps, and I stick with the
factory installed coils. There is also some topic of debate surrounding
offset jaws verses plain jaws. Offsets, because they are designed with a gap
between the jaws, allow the jaws to close further with the levers rising
higher on the jaws giving a greater mechanical advantage. Personally, I
prefer the plain jaws traps, especially in #1.75. With the smaller jaw
spread, the #1.75 often gets coyotes low on the foot near the toes. With
offset jaws, the animal could slide back and forth in the trap with this
type of hold. This could result in possible injury or escape.
modification I do recommend, providing the trap does not come equipped this
way, is to mount the chain on the bottom center of the frame. With this
system, there is no sideways pull on the trap. All the force is directed
straight away from the jaws and takes full advantage of both springs and
both levers. The chain should have at least two swivels. This keeps the
chain from becoming fouled, which would giving the coyote added leverage to
The length of
the chain on a coyote trap depends on the type of system used to anchor the
trap. Coyotes are notorious for rearing up on their hind legs when confined
in a trap and this action can pull or "pump" a stake out of the ground. One
option, when using a single stake, is to add an additional four to six feet
of chain to the trap. This gives the coyote plenty of room to jump. However,
I don't like this system, especially with #1.75 traps. The extra chain also
gives the coyote a lot of running room, and it can slam a trap pretty hard
when it hits the end of the chain. This could result in a pull out with a
smaller, weaker trap.
preference is to shorten the chains on these traps to eight or ten inches
and use a double stake system. I use one in-line double swivel in the chain
near the base of the trap and attach a double stake swivel to the end of the
chain. The double stake swivels I use are heavy gauge metal stampings
roughly in the shape of a figure eight. There is a single swiveling rivet in
the middle and both ends of the fastener are turned down about 45 degrees.
They somewhat resemble a butterfly. The ends are turned down so that two
stakes can be driven at opposite angles through the swivel.
There are other
methods and devices available for double staking, but all rely on the stakes
being crossed to achieve solid anchoring. The stakes must be driven in at an
angle of approximately 35 degrees so they cross underground. That is why
this system is also known as cross staking. With the tops of the stakes
about three inches apart, each crossed stake shares the burden of holding
the animal. The only way you can pull a stake is to pull straight back on it
in the direction in which it was inserted. If two stakes were driven
straight into the ground, a direct upward pull might loosen the stakes. With
crossed stakes, there is no direction in which the animal can pull that it
will not be bearing sideways on at least one of the stakes. Even with a
straight up pull, the angle of the stake transfers the force into a sideways
I use stakes
made from 3/8 inch rebar, and under most soil conditions, crossed 16-inch
stakes will hold coyotes. Crossed 18-inch stakes will hold nearly anywhere.
I have had traps fastened with crossed 18's that were snagged by plows. In
several instances, the chain on the trap broke before the staking system
Fast Forward -- Cable stakes were just beginning to gain
popularity when this article was written. Today I fasten a lot of traps with
illustrates how I rig #1.75 traps for coyotes. I have no particular
preference for round jaw or square jaw traps; I use both kinds. I also file
the final notch of the trap pan to about 1/16 inch to make a hair trigger,
but I still maintain two pounds of tension on the pan. With these slight
adjustments, and a good anchoring system, you can rely on #1.75's to hold
almost any coyote.
Click here to find a
Sullivan Trap Tester
(Posted for November - December 2007)
by Hal Sullivan
(This article was first published in "The Trapper" January 1993)
There are a
number of styles and varieties of canine sets, and the goal in making one is
to catch a critter. You take pains to carefully construct the set and fit it
into the natural surroundings. If you're lucky, your set will achieve its
goal, and you will find an animal in your trap. But success comes as a two
edged sword, because the set which you carefully labored over has been used
as a dance floor by the captured critter.
You can spend a
lot of time learning to construct different sets, but as you gain
proficiency the "remake" will become one of your more frequently used sets.
After you catch
an animal in a dryland trap, the set area will usually be pretty well torn
up unless you are using drags with your traps. A critter can plow up a lot
of ground when the field is no longer than a trap chain. Also, the set area
will be contaminated with the smell of that animal. There are people who do
not advocate rebuilding sets on the theory that some animals will not enter
the catch circle. I find some merit to this argument; however, I have
observed that many, and likely most, animals will work a rebuilt set.
cover the bases, I often place a fresh set near a remake, if I don't already
have one available. I generally make double sets, placing two traps
relatively close to each other. A number of times this method has also
illustrated the value of a remake. Often, at these double sets, I catch
three or four animals in one trap, and the other set remains undisturbed.
The first step
in executing a remake is deciding whether or not you can. Water is your
worst enemy. If you hind foot a skunk in plowed ground after a rain storm,
pull your trap stakes, if you can find them, and go on. That is a worst case
scenario; you can't do much with gobs of mud, but if the dirt at the set is
still workable, a remake is fairly easy.
replace the used trap at a remake set with a fresh odorless one, but I think
this is an unwarranted waste of clean traps. The odors left on a trap at a
remake are no different from those that saturate the surrounding earth. From
the standpoint of odor, the trap is almost perfectly camouflaged. However,
it can be a good idea to replace traps that have lost their protective
coating and may become subject to rust. This is a particularly good idea if
you are using chloride or salt to antifreeze the traps in cold weather.
reusing the trap at a remake, the first thing I do is inspect it. Any animal
secretions that might be on the trap are scrubbed off with some of the loose
dirt from the set. If you fasten with a single stake, check to make sure it
is still solid. If it is loose, pull it up and drive it in a new spot in the
trap bed. Crossed staked traps are reliable for the duration of the set.
Fast Forward -- Because of the prevalence of coyotes, it is
a rare occasion today when I fasten a dryland trap with a single stake,
unless it is a cable stake.
If the stake is
solid, the trap can be replaced in its original bed. Once you have the trap
repositioned, use the dirt that you cleared from the trap bed or loose dirt
from the set area to cover the trap. If you use fresh, clean dirt for this,
it will smell different than the surrounding ground and create an odd scent
attraction directly over your trap. If you need to import extra dirt, mix
the clean dirt and contaminated dirt together. One word of caution, if you
are rebuilding a dirthole, and you have located the old hole, don't cover
your trap with the dirt you cleaned out of it. The dirt can be heavily
contaminated with food odors or may contain pieces of bait. This could
entice a digging response.
If you are
looking for variety in remake sets, I'm not the person to talk to. I have
done a little trenching through mounds raked up by critters and tried a few
other novelties, but by and large my remakes are nearly all the same. You
just can't do much with that tore up piece of ground. Oh, you can throw some
ground duff back in the circle, and I often do this to camouflage it from
human eyes. But you can't hide it from an animal. To them, it is going to
look and smell like some animal spent a long time in that spot.
This is not a
disadvantage. Remake sets in fact are high powered attractors. Most animals
will want to investigate these smells, if for no other reason than to
satisfy their curiosity. Reluring a remake set is sort of like spitting in
the ocean. The set has already been lured by the trapped critter and few
drops of "El Stinko" isn't going to add much to the affect.
nothing subtle about a remake. The place is torn up, and the whole thing
stinks to high heaven. This may in itself lure the animal to investigate
inside the catch circle. But you also need an added attractor to center the
animal over the trap. Since there is already plenty of animal smell, I use
bait for the added attraction. And since the ground us already scratched and
dug up, I convert nearly all remake sets to dirthole form. The bait and hole
offer a fairly "natural" presentation, if that term can be applied at all to
a remake set.
I can't read
animal's thoughts, but to a prospective target, the strong odors must arouse
a curiosity as to why the trapped critter spent so much time there. In turn,
the odor of the bait may allay the suspicion of the target animal because it
represents food that may have been captured or discovered by the lingering
animal. I use a dirthole, because it appears as if the preceding animal has
either uncovered or buried a cache.
If the original
set was a dirthole, I try to locate the hole when rebuilding the set. If it
was a flat or post set, or if the original hole was wiped out by the trapped
animal, I simply dig a new hole. I put a fairly good size chunk of bait in
the hole. I want to be sure that the bait will give off enough odor to be
noticeable over the animal smells already at the set.
As often as
not, the dirt at the set will be raked in and form a mound around the set.
This is especially true if the animal was caught by a back foot. On a
remake, I usually level out most of the dirt in the catch circle and scatter
it back to its original position. If there is a great deal of dirt, I often
leave the center of the set slightly raised by a couple of inches. Then
where the trap is staked, I scrape out a wide vee down to the level of the
original trap bed. I cut this out like slice of pie, and dig a bait hole in
the point of the vee. This low spot offers a not-so-subtle force to get the
next animal steered into the set.
Even when you
remake a set on flat ground, you can get away with a lot of forcing. And you
should use as much as necessary. With so much torn up ground and such a wide
scent pattern, an animal is apt to approach the target area from any number
of angles. A deep, angled hole will help to swing the animal around to the
trap, but it's also a good idea to add some backing to the hole. If you had
a substantial backing, simply find and replace it. You might opt to install
a new backing, but if it is clean it may appear to be out place at the
remake. If there is heavy ground cover at the set, you can rake some of this
up vee-shaped behind the hole. Even with these precautions, you can expect a
higher rate of dig-outs at remake sets.
You can also
apply a lot more forcing around the trap in a remake set. You can
judiciously arrange sticks, stones, and clods of dirt, to guide the animal's
foot onto the pan. The place is already torn up, and these objects won't
appear out of place.
discussion, I have been purposefully non-specific in regards to the animals
caught, or to be caught, in a remake set. Frankly, it doesn't much seem to
matter. In my earlier years, there were a number of writers expounding that
it was impossible to catch a fox in a set once you had caught a possum. I
don't like to think about how many sets I abandoned back then. Now that I
have some data to look back on, I know that you can catch possums and fox
before, after, and in between each other. The same goes for coons, skunks,
and most of the other critters that turn up in a dryland set. I don't seem
to have much trouble catching them interchangeably at the same set.
There is one
major disadvantage in the remake set. It is often highly visible and
consequently subject to human predation. Sometimes, you can camouflage them
fairly well, but by and large they are going to catch the attention of
anyone passing by. In high risk areas, it may be advisable to forego the
remake and construct an inconspicuous clean set nearby.
There are some
trappers who never remake a set, but generally remakes are an effective and
economical method for the trapper. It certainly can be helpful to those who
have limited equipment if the trap and catch site can be recycled into a
working set. Even if you have extra traps, and you want to put in a clean
set nearby, there is nothing wrong with doing a remake and giving yourself
an extra set. For my money, the best thing you can do with a set that has
connected with a critter is remake it and catch another one.
Videos" department for more trapping information.
(Posted for September - October 2007)
by Hal Sullivan
(This article was first published in "The Trapper" July, 1992)
I stepped into the small creek, and began wading upstream. The end of the trapping season was near, and a January thaw had sent flood waters down this creek a week earlier. The water was still muddy and abnormally high. I had been waiting to trap the muskrats here, but the dens were hard to find in the muddy water, and the flood had erased most of the other sign. I looked up the creek, and saw the narrow end of a small island that had been swept bare by the flood. At least I was going to have one good set.
Trappers working on muskrats usually rely on dens, feedbeds, and runways to produce most of their catch. I agree that these are probably the best sets for muskrats, but there are other locations that will yield muskrats on a regular basis. Such spots exist where narrow peninsulas of land extend out into the main body of water.
This could be the downstream "tail" of a small island, as I described above, or it could be a true peninsula--one that is attached to the shore in some manner. Peninsulas that are narrow and taper down to a fairly definite point seem to hold the most attraction for muskrats, but in fact any piece of land that juts into the water can have potential for a muskrat set.
peninsula of land that juts out into the stream is a natural
attractor for muskrats.
There are several reasons why muskrats are attracted to these small peninsulas, but I believe the greatest factor has to do with their territorial nature. These peninsulas are a predominant feature on the otherwise flat surface of the water or smooth contour of the bank. Like many other territorial animals, muskrats use these predominant features to mark their home range. They deposit their droppings here, as a warning to intruders.
Not only do the local muskrats use these peninsulas to mark their territory, traveling muskrats also stop here to check for competition. As the breeding season approaches, these peninsulas will see a lot of activity from muskrats that are seeking mates. This makes a set on a peninsula even more productive late in the season, or during a spring season if you have one, because the rats are breeding and dispersing at this time.
Muskrats also use peninsulas as stopping and resting places, or as overland travel routes. However, you are unlikely to find feeding areas on a peninsula unless there is heavy cover. These areas are ordinarily too exposed to offer the muskrat protection from winged predators while they feed.
Before you make a set at a peninsula, you should check it for sign. Approach the area slowly, especially if you are in a calm water situation. Many of these peninsulas are only a few inches out of the water or the fresh sign may be near the water's edge, and the waves you make wading toward the set may erase the sign.
Check the area for tracks, droppings, or any other sign a visiting muskrat might leave. If you find any sign at all, this is probably a good place to make a set. Sometimes you will find large deposits of muskrat droppings at these peninsulas, proving them to be very active. In this case, you may want to consider using two or more traps at the location to produce multiple catches. Always bear in mind that rising water can wash away the sign. If you are trapping shortly after a period of high water, and find that sign is not abundant, it may be that the muskrats simply have not had enough time to generate a lot of sign.
It is always a good idea to check the whole area for sign, but most of the sign will ordinarily be concentrated on the point of a peninsula. This is where the animals are most likely to leave the water to go ashore. Usually, the muskrat's approach will be straight into the point in line with the peninsula. This is especially true if there is any current, and the peninsula is pointed down stream.
Many of these peninsulas, including those on the downstream side of an island, are carved out or laid down as sediment by flowing water. While the current may flow around both sides, the water at the point is a dead area and offers a path of least resistance for the swimming muskrat. In calm or non-flowing water this tendency is not as pronounced, but even here muskrats will usually approach a peninsula somewhere near the point, although they may come in from a side angle.
While you can usually count on the point of a peninsula to give the general angle of approach, you may not be able to find one certain spot where muskrats are leaving and entering the water. These points are often shallow and relatively featureless, so the muskrats are not forced to use a single exit. Thus, it can be hard to pinpoint the location for a set.
My own preference is to use a blind set for taking muskrats on a peninsula. I use this set in conjunction with some kind of attractor, usually the muskrat droppings, if there are any present, will suffice. Sometimes I will use lure or bait, depending upon how much sign is present, but these are really not necessary if sign is heavy.
If there are fresh muskrat droppings apparent on the point of the peninsula, I assume the 'rats will return. I first look for a natural or well used landing to hold my trap. If I don't find one, I try to provide one.
I select the area of the bank that seems like it is getting the most use or appears to be the logical approach to the peninsula. Using my hand, my boot, or even my shovel if necessary, I cut a small artificial slide or landing into the mud. This leads directly towards the droppings or other attractor up on the peninsula. This slide may be anywhere from 6 to 18 inches long. I slick down the sides and bottom of my landing to give it a used appearance, and set the trap under water and barely off to one side.
This set can be valuable during periods of fluctuating water because you can adjust the length of the slide and the depth of the trap. If the water is falling, extend your slide further out into the water, and set your trap deep. A trap set under 4 to 6 inches of water will catch a muskrat by the back foot, and if the water falls, the trap will still be effective on a front foot catch. If the water is rising, cut your channel further up the bank and set the trap shallow. Even if the water gets deeper over your trap, the extended channel will still be above water and will guide the 'rat over your trap, possibly for a hind foot catch.
I ordinarily use a foothold trap at this set if there is sufficient water at hand to drown the animal. Never use a foothold trap for muskrats that is not rigged to drown! It is also to your advantage to get the animal drowned quickly. Muskrats are not exceeding wary and aren't much bothered by their dead kin floating in the water. However, they will avoid an area if they encounter another muskrat struggling and fighting in a trap, and they may not return to that place for several days.
It is often advantageous to stake these sets off to the side of the peninsula rather than straight out from the point. As previously noted, the water off the point is usually calm and shallow, while the side of the peninsula is usually scoured deep, and the current, if any, will be fastest here. A stake placed out to the side will swing the 'rat into the current or deep water, either of which will help to drown the animal quickly.
The other option is to conceal a bodygrip trap in the slide. Ideally, the trap should be set about half under water so the muskrat will swim through it. A few twigs or blades of grass can be used to camouflage the trap and will probably increase its effectiveness. Make sure these traps are stabilized so the muskrats don't knock them over. Use sticks between the jaws or through the springs to hold the trap steady.
Fast Forward --Today, I use stabilizers on all my bodygrip traps, rather than have to look for sticks to stabilize them
Try to stake these traps so the 'rat can get itself back in the water before in succumbs. A dead muskrat lying out in the open is very inviting prey for many animals.
A peninsula can be a producer of muskrats any time of year, but they do become more effective later on in the season. Many areas see significant flooding during the late winter. Because the upper levels of these peninsulas either remain exposed, or are the first places to be exposed by the falling water, they are very attractive to the muskrats trying to return to a more stable environment. Dens, feedbeds, etc. are often difficult to locate at this time. As the mating season approaches, these peninsulas take on service as scent stations.
When I am trapping muskrats, I don't walk by a peninsula without checking it out. I don't set every one, and sometimes I don't set them at all if I have enough places covered with standard sets. But when I find a heavily used location, or I am operating under adverse conditions, these peninsulas can add significantly to my catch.
Hardware & Misc.
department for bodygrip stabilizers.
(Posted for July-August 2007)
TRAPPING MARSH MUSKRATS
by Hal Sullivan
(This article was first published in "Fur-Fish-Game" July, 1991)
One interesting aspect of muskrat trapping is that it comes in two distinct brands. I've taken a lot of muskrats, but my brand of muskrat trapping usually involves catching them from creeks, ponds, rivers, and sloughs. Marsh habitat is scarce as hen's teeth in the hill country where I make my home, so when I gained permission to trap on one of the large marshes in the northern part of the state, I quickly seized the opportunity. Trapping muskrats in a marsh environment is not completely different from trapping them in other locations; however, it has enough distinct features to put marsh trapping in its own separate category.
Like most other trappers, I'm excited by different challenges, and I was anxious to try my hand at trapping a large marsh. I had teamed up with a friend and fellow trapper to run this line, and we met early one December afternoon at the edge of the marsh. I've caught some muskrats in marsh type conditions in small isolated pockets of wetland, but from my vantage point here, marsh land extended as far as the eye could see.
This marsh is owned and managed by the state. There was certainly a trapable population of muskrats, but they were not as thick as I expected. Huts were quite evident, but I didn't see much sign of old works. I encountered some peculiar plants, as I waded hip-deep through patches of what appeared to be smartweed. Though I am not totally familiar with marsh vegetation, I know that smartweed doesn't grow underwater.
We looked up the biologist who is headquartered at the marsh, and he shed some light on my observations. The area which we were trapping was managed primarily for the benefit of waterfowl. During the summer months, the water level in this unit is drastically lowered to encourage the growth of plants, like millet and cutgrass, which provide food for waterfowl. The unit is then flooded early in the fall and yields an ideal environment for migrating birds.
This helped explain the lowered muskrat population on this unit and the apparent lack of old muskrat sign. I found out that the smartweed I had noticed was an important food source for ducks and geese. And this management plan appeared to be working because you could scarcely move 50 or 100 yards through the marsh without scaring up some kind of waterfowl.
Neither my partner nor I are novice trappers, so we had a general idea of what we were getting into. We had already determined we needed a boat to haul our equipment around the marsh. Unlike creek or pond trapping, there were no convenient bridges or parking spots in the marsh that provide easy access for a vehicle. We had a 12' johnboat, but we noticed that local trappers were using a small pointed "duck pram" to traverse the marsh. After we drug our square fronted johnboat through a couple of thick weed patches, we quickly ascertained the value of the smaller pointed boats. It was obviously easier to slip them through the vegetation.
Although there were some levees and dikes at the edge of the marsh, our primary locations for muskrat sets were found among and upon the domed huts that the muskrats constructed in the knee-deep waters of the marsh. Please take note that trapping on muskrat huts is not legal in all states, and some states require that traps be set back a certain distance from a hut.
Muskrats build these huts by cutting off the available vegetation and dragging it up into a pile until it extends above the water line. I refer to these structures generically as huts, but actually there are two types. The larger size huts usually provide the living quarters or lodge for the muskrats. Smaller piles usually serve as feeding stations, and the muskrats do not inhabit the feed huts. There is no clear cut dividing line between these two types of huts, but there are some good indicators.
Usually, the larger huts are the lodges. If a pile is no bigger than a bushel basket, it is probably a feed hut. Often, there will be a wide, open pool around a lodge where the muskrats have cut down the plants to build the structure. Many times, feeder huts will be located around the edge of this pool and may be hidden among very thick vegetation. Another clue to distinguishing these huts is the shape. Lodges usually have nicely rounded domes while feed huts may be more irregular in shape. We found some that were shaped like ski slopes with the back side of the pile nearly vertical.
Obviously, there were underwater entrances to the lodge huts, but we had little success in finding them. There were no apparent visual clues. We searched under the lodges with the toe of a boot, but there were few places where you could not stick your whole foot under the hut. I think the problem stemmed from the fact that these huts were all relatively new, built since the unit was reflooded in early fall. They had not had a chance to settle and were actually floating a few inches off the bottom. The rats simply swam under the hut and climbed up the dive hole. We also looked for burrow openings in the bottom of the pool that surrounded the huts but found very few of these.
That meant most of our sets were made on the edges of the huts. By examining the huts closely and reading the sign, we could usually find a place where the rats were climbing on and off the huts. We set traps at these landings. At the edge of the landing spot, we mashed out a bed that would contain a foothold trap and keep it just under the surface of the water. We also set up some landings with bodygrip traps because we weren't sure we would have a sufficient number of footholds. These traps had to be set above water, and we didn't have much success getting the muskrats to go through the exposed bodygrips.
Please keep in mind that all our trapping was done in open water. If there had been a layer of ice on the marsh, our methods and selection of traps would have been different. Under ice trapping for muskrats is a somewhat more difficult proposition.
When we found an active hut that had no apparent landing, we made one. Starting at the waterline, we used a gloved hand or boot to scratch a shallow groove up the side of the hut. This gives the appearance of a natural landing, and plays on the muskrat's instinct to seek out the easiest access point when approaching the hut. We made a few other sets by pulling a handful of material out of the side of the hut, making a shallow hole. The muskrats will often come to inspect and repair such damage and are caught.
Using lure for muskrats is sometimes a topic for debate. There was a time when I thought lure was a needless waste on a muskrat line, but this wisdom has been tempered with age. On this trapline, we made extensive use of scent attractors, placing a lure stick at nearly every set. In this situation, the odor of the lure may help to pull in an occasional muskrat that might otherwise pass by, or could help steer an approaching muskrat over the trap. I know very well that most of these sets would have worked without lure, but the extra advantage of the scent attractor greatly exceeded the cost and effort involved in using it.
During our stay, we learned of another attractor that local marsh trappers use at some sets. Rather than applying lure, they just grab up a handful of muck from the bottom of the marsh and plop it down behind the trap. It sounds like a miniature variation of the castor mound set for beaver, but uses no lure at all. Although I didn't get a chance to try it, I heard about this method from several different sources, and I'm assuming it does work.
Footholds were definitely the trap of choice for these conditions. Of course using footholds on muskrats requires a drowning set, but this is not hard to construct when you are surrounded by knee-deep water. We used 5 or 6-foot stakes, cut from the straight growing willows that occur on the fringes of the marsh. We fastened our traps to these stakes and extended the stake off the side of the hut. In a few cases, we simply pulled the chain backward through the ring of the trap and inserted a stake through this cinch loop. But most often, we wired the trap to the stake.
There are some pros and cons to wiring a trap to a stake. On the plus side, wiring the trap keeps it from slipping around the stake and may cause the rat to wind up and drown faster. Another advantage is the trap stays fastened when you pull up the stake, either to retrieve a tangled rat or when you are pulling the set. Unwired traps can fall off when the stake is pulled. On the minus side, it takes a little longer to wire up a trap and unwire it when you are done. You can make this step a little easier by not running the stake through the ring of the trap before you wire it. Just put a piece of wire through the ring and twist it around the stake. When you are ready to remove the trap, use a pair of pointed wire cutters to clip the wire, and the trap and stake are immediately separated.
To finish off our sets, we tied a strip of bright pink flagging to the top of the stake. Frankly, I don't know how anyone could possibly keep track of their sets in this type of environment without flagging them. I won't say that this marsh was featureless, but there were many acres that were very similar in appearance. Also, it was very hard to see over or through the marsh vegetation. Many times we would stumble on a feed hut that was all but invisible from a few yards away. A bright pink ribbon waving above the cattails made these sets, and our traps, fairly easy to spot.
We trapped on the marsh for a few days, then pulled our steel and headed home. We had never intended to make a big production out of this trapline, this was simply an opportunity to try our hand at trapping muskrats in a different environment. In this case, you might say we had as much fun enjoying the scenery as we did catching the muskrats. Marsh trapping was certainly a departure from my ordinary muskrat lines, but it was an enjoyable and a welcome change of pace.
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