Getting Started Trapping

By Troy Hoepker

The coyote traps went in the ground last year about ten days into November. After seeing lots of sign, and capturing pictures on the trail camera of multiple coyotes traveling through, I had a spot that looked promising. A flat set and two dirt hole sets scattered about 40 feet apart would try and nab a coy passerby. The first couple of weeks led to nothing but frustration and the coyotes were giving me a real “education”.

One coyote humiliated me in the worst way possible. Upon checking my traps that morning I discovered my unfired trap lying right on top of the ground like you placed it there carefully with two bare hands. A tidy pile of dug up dirt was stacked right beside it. As a further slap in the face, the perpetrator left a soft and smelly calling card right next to the trap on the other side. This meant war! Days later one of my other set locations had the pan cover carefully pulled off the top of the trap leaving it partially exposed for every future coyote to see as they came rambling through.

Fast-forward a few days, and we were loaded in the car ready to drive to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving. As we drove by the pasture where those traps were set, a noticeable dark blob appeared over one of the set locations.

“Sorry kids, but we’re going to be late getting to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving,” I excitedly said knowing that we had finally caught one of those illusive coyotes that had been causing me sleepless nights.

Bound by the ankle was a nicely furred coyote that had investigated one of the dirt holes a little too closely overnight. Both of my boys found it interesting to be so close to a live wild coyote and it was good for them to see the end result of all the steps in the trap setting process that I had showed them.

No matter how many years you try your hand at the business of trapping wild animals, you are always learning.

If you’re interested in trapping but don’t know where to start, there is a ton of information at your fingertips these days. Books, magazines, dvd’s, blogs, websites and forums are all places to get advice and useful resources. YouTube alone can provide many ways to accomplish a task. First and foremost however, I suggest really educating yourself on the characteristics of the species you want to target. Learn the animal’s behaviors and tendencies the best you can. Knowing how an animal hunts, uses it’s senses and how it travels is the first basic understanding a good trapper must know.

Naturally, one of the best educations you can get is to spend a little time with an experienced trapper gracious enough to let you tag along running the line. That kind of hands on experience has no substitute.

Even if you do not have a family member or friend that traps, don’t give up. The Iowa Trappers Association (ITA) partners with the DNR to offer a hands-on Iowa Fur Harvester Education Workshop to educate and instruct attendees on fur handling, trap setting and everything in between. You can find these workshops through the Iowa DNR website. The ITA also hosts their annual trapper’s convention where they host live demonstrations, seminars, dealer booths and many fun activities. Attending this convention can link you with valuable resources to help you shorten the learning curve.

There are four basic types of traps: the foothold, the conibear, the snare or the box trap/live trap. Each of these traps cater to the specific size of different species and the lethalness or non-lethalness of the catch. You’ll want to research the size of trap you pick for its effectiveness in holding the size of game you’re after and also check the state laws on legal trap types and trapping locations. Any trap needs to have a trapping tag applied to it with your name and address.

Footholds are one of the most common traps and allow you to release non-target animals safely. There are various types of foothold traps but for coil spring footholds you need a few other items. You’re going to need rebar stakes or earth anchors and a small sledge hammer for driving stakes into the ground, a dirt trowel for digging trap beds, a dirt sifter to cover the trap up once it’s placed and a pan cover of some sort to ensure that nothing prevents the pan of the trap from being depressed enough to fire the trap. A trap setter device might also be desired.

You will also want to treat your steel traps before burying them. First make sure they are clean and then let a fine layer of rust form on the surface. Next is the dye process, which involves dipping your steel into a simmering pot of logwood dye or using a dye mix to treat them. This helps keep your traps scent free and also protects your traps from rusting up after weeks of being buried underground. Now you are ready to set traps.

Before you set a trap, let’s take a second to talk about scent control. As a trapper, I am meticulous about minimizing scent contamination at a set. It’s the one thing that will insure pure doom of all of your hard work if you don’t make your best effort to stay as scent free as possible. Wear a pair of rubber boots, rubber gloves and use a kneepad anytime you are making a set or even at the location. Once my traps are dyed I never touch them with bare hands again. A coyote or a fox will smell where you’ve been even with good scent control methods, but if you’re careful, over time your scent will disperse away from the location.

Now it’s time to set your trap. Find natural travel locations. Field corners, along waterways, field crossings, two tracks or cattle trails are all good spots. Think about the prevailing winds and placing traps upwind from travel areas to grab those coyotes by the nose as they are traveling by when using a lure or bait.

Once you’ve found a good spot, it’s time to set your trap. The most popular set is the dirthole set. To make a dirthole set look for a spot that has a natural backing. You’ll make your hole on one side of that backing and place your trap in front of the hole. You don’t want the animal to work the set from behind. Make your hole to look like a mouse hole with the hole itself being angled steep and fairly deep, maybe 10 inches or so. I want a coyote to get right overtop of the hole to investigate.

Once the bait hole is dug, find the spot 8-10 inches directly in front of the hole and then offset two or three inches left or right of that mark. That is where you want the pan of your foothold to go. Dig out a small area that is only slightly bigger than the dimensions of the trap and only slightly deeper than the trap itself. If you dig the hole too deep or too wide, a coyote or fox will feel the loose packed dirt as he investigates and leave the scene. Place your trap making sure it fits and is level and put the dirt back in around it. The most important part is to make sure the trap is bedded solid so that it will not move. Place your pan cover on it and sift some dirt overtop of the trap until covered. Add your bait to the hole, possibly some sheep’s wool or something else and then use a little lure above the dirthole. Possibly place a rock or sticks in front of the trap to guide the animal where to step and you’re all done.

Another set that might work when coyotes shy away from a dirthole set is a what’s called a flat set. With a flat set you are still bedding a trap but without the dirthole. Instead you’ll use a backing for them to sniff like a weed, skull, log, tree, or anything really. Place coyote urine 8-12 inches up the backing, about the height of a coyote lifting his leg and set your trap in front of that. You can add a slight bit of gland lure to the base of the backing. Cover your trap with grass or leaves if you’d like. A flat set, sometimes called a urine post set, is a more discreet type of hidden set.

For the true beginner, I always suggest trying to catch raccoon with dog proof traps as your first attempts into trapping. Enclosed dog proofs are fairly straightforward without as much that can go wrong. Simply find an area of raccoon activity, set your stake, bait your trap, set the trap and place it in the ground. Use quality bait with an eye attractant on top of the trap and watch the raccoons get themselves caught. It’s a good way to learn how to set good locations and catch your first fur.

Snaring can be done with different species but check the state laws closely whenever using snares. Snares are lightweight, easy to transport and very effective. The downside is they can also do permanent damage to a pelt and can be a bit finicky. Snares are usually placed along a “run” or trail where animals travel. Place your catch loop head high on the animal and keep it in place by using a stand, either natural or manmade.

Used on beaver, otter, mink, muskrat and raccoon, conibear traps are effective when used on tunnels, trails and in water. They insure a quick and humane death once their grip locks down on the catch. Because they are lethal, make sure non-target animals like cats or dogs are not nearby. With the use of any conibear you are trying to get the animal to pass through the jaws of the trap until it bumps the trigger, which releases the jaws onto the catch with constrictive force. Animals like muskrat and mink love inspecting tunnels and beaver and otter use slides and openings to travel. This makes the conibear an extremely effective trap on these animals.

We’ve barely scratched the surface on learning the basics of trapping but hopefully this article has provided you with some good information to get started in the right direction. Use every resource you can get your hands on to learn about trapping methods of the animal you’d like to target. Trapping is an addictive hobby and when you walk up on your first catch, you’ll feel a feeling of satisfaction like nothing else you’ve ever experienced.