The Basics of Trapping

By Mike Sells

With the recent rise in the price for raw fur, many of you may be considering starting a trap line. It is an excellent way to keep active in the outdoors and generate some extra income.  In this article I will explain the basic skills required to catch muskrats, mink, raccoon, fox and coyotes.

It’s really pretty simple if you will study the targeted animal and its environment and then apply the basics. I have been trapping for over fifty years and still use a lot of the same basic type of sets that I started with. One of those sets is called a “Blind Set.” All that is required for making a blind set is to find where the animal is traveling and then set a trap where it will place its foot.

I started with muskrats, so let me first talk about trapping them. My first muskrats were caught at underwater den entrances along a creek and several small ponds. By watching muskrats swim along and then diving underwater and not coming back up, I soon found that they were going into a den entrance that then led back into the bank underground. There they were safe at home from all their natural predators. I set a number one size trap right at the entrance to those dens with the jaws of the trap just barely inside the entrance. I then stretched the chain of the trap out its full length into deeper water and staked it down so they couldn’t pull it out. The next day when I came back to check them, I found that I had caught two muskrats out of the three sets that I had made. I reset those traps and continued to catch more. This is a very effective type of set and I still look for underwater den entrances every chance I get.

Another time, as I was walking along the edge of a creek, I saw a muskrat run into the water from higher up the bank. Being curious, I went down to see where it had been up on the bank. I discovered a small trail covered with muskrat tracks leading up to some high grass. There I found that the muskrats had been digging up and eating some of the roots. I set a trap just under the water where the muskrats were coming out of the water and staked the chain out in the deeper water. The next day I had another muskrat. After that I started looking closer along the edge of the water for more of these muskrat trails or runs as some people call them. I have also discovered that I can slide my boot up and down the bank to create a fake run that the muskrats will use as they find them. To make it more enticing, I use a small drop of lure and a small piece of bait to get them to use the run. Most of my bait is a piece of apple or part of an ear of field corn.

Another place to look for muskrat sign is up under overhanging grass along the edge of the bank. A lot of times the water has undercut the bank and it makes an attractive and safe place for muskrats to use. A trap placed back there will catch any muskrats that come along.

Marshes and sloughs will often have muskrat huts built out in the water. If it’s shallow enough to wade from hut to hut you will find some real easy trapping. Every night the muskrats come out and climb up on the huts while building them up. Just place a trap underwater at the edge of the hut where they are coming out and you will have them.

Now on to mink and raccoon. They can be caught at the same sets made for muskrats so be sure to stake your traps down very well. You will be surprised at how strong a raccoon can be especially if it can grab a hold of something solid to pull on. Probably the most popular set that trappers use for mink and raccoon is the “Pocket Set.” All you do is dig a pocket back into the bank at the waters edge so it is partially under water. The idea is to simulate a muskrat den that the mink and coon will investigate while searching for food. I use a narrow bladed tile spade to dig my pocket sets with. I only dig back a foot or two with the back end angled upwards slightly. Spear a piece of bait with a stick into the back end of the pocket so it is above the water line and smear a little lure at the entrance. Make the entrance to the pocket just wide enough so the jaws of a one and a half size coil spring trap will fit. This set is versatile and can be extremely successful for catching a variety of game.

When a raccoon is caught in a pocket set, it will tear up the bank and make your small pocket a lot larger. If you can still use it be sure to place the trap real close to one edge of the hole or you will miss any mink that come along. Mink like to hug the edge of the bank and will enter a large hole just on the very edge.

All of what I have told you so far is based on using foothold type traps. Conibear type traps or traps designed to kill instantly work just as good in the sets mentioned and in some cases work even better. I use them both. Another type of trap that I use a lot of, for raccoon, is the dog proof trap. They are a type of trap that a raccoon has to reach into with its forepaws to get the bait out. They are excellent to use along the water, in the woods, on trails, out in the fields or around buildings. They are designed to catch animals that normally use their front feet to eat with. When they reach in to get the bait they trip the trigger and get caught.

Fox and coyote have a reputation as being very smart and hard to catch. I have not found that to be so. In fact they are no harder to catch than any other animal if you take your time and know how to make the set. The most popular set to use on them is called the “Dirt Hole Set.” It is simple to make and you should practice making a few in your backyard to get the hang of it. Have you ever watched a dog dig a hole and bury a bone? That is exactly what you are trying to simulate. Dig the hole about an inch and a half in diameter and at about a forty-five degree angle and about a foot deep. Now dig out a flat bed for your trap just in front of and at the edge of the hole and just deep enough to conceal a set trap below the finished surface. For fox and coyote I mostly use one and three quarter size coil spring type traps. I always dig the trap bed a little deeper in the center of the bed to make room for the chain so the trap doesn’t rest on the chain. Cover the chain with dirt and place your set trap on top and press it down so it is solid and doesn’t wobble or tip when you press on any part of the trap. Now you need to cover the pan of the trap with a big enough covering so dirt won’t sift under the pan when you cover it all up. Some trappers use a piece of waxed paper, a piece of fiberglass screening or even a piece of cloth. I like to use a piece of fiberglass wall insulation cut slightly larger than the pan. I place the insulation under the pan. Now take the dirt that came from the hole and trap bed and sift it over the entire trap and smooth it over so it all looks even. A very slight depression centered over the pan will encourage the fox or coyote to place its foot in that exact spot. The only thing left is to bait and lure the set and back away leaving everything looking as natural as possible.

The actual construction of a dirt hole set is pretty simple but there are several other pretty important things to also be aware of if you are going to catch any fox and coyotes. Location is probably the most important. I like along a fencerow way back in a field where a gate is open or along a ridge leading from a pond to the woods. Creek crossings way out in fields are also very good. The main point is that you need to make your sets real close to where they travel. You cannot expect them to travel very far from their normal travel ways. When you make the set be sure to have a backing that will force the animal to come around to the front and approach the set like you made it. A clump of grass or weeds, a rock, a stump, a tree branch or anything else you can find close by will all work for your backing. I always use a piece of bait down in the hole and I cover it with a wad of grass so they can’t look in the hole and see the bait. I like to use half of a mouse as my bait but just about any meat will work. Make it no bigger than the size of a walnut. I also use two different lures at a set. One is placed right at the top edge of the hole and the other is a very strong call lure placed several feet away and up high on a tall weed.

So there you go, with that information you should be able to get started and have some success. To learn more I highly encourage you to join the Iowa Trappers Association. One of the benefits of being a member is the magazine you get every other month. It is called the “Trappers Post” and every issue is filled with how-to articles written by well-known trappers along with advertisements from trap supply dealers. You will find everything you want to know about trapping and fur handling and marketing. It is also the Iowa Trappers Association official publication to keep you informed about what the ITA is doing.