“One riot, one Ranger,” was the old motto of the Texas Rangers, the obvious implication being that if you sent the right man to do the job, that one man was the only one necessary.
It’s a manly, noble, chest-thumping attitude, the kind of thinking upon which the West was built. But if “one riot, one Ranger” truly was standard operating procedure for the Texas Rangers, the smart money says there were at least a few times when they failed to get the job done. The fact is two good men are better than one good man. Every time. No exceptions.
Here are a couple more old sayings that have stood the test of time: “There’s strength in numbers” and “Two heads are better than one.”
In a nutshell, that’s the whole premise behind the practice of gang setting and blitz trapping: The idea that two traps are better than one, or three or better than two, or four are better than three and so on.
(Left) The author with a mink near a hatchery.
The first order of business in this discussion is defining the terms. Both gang setting and blitz trapping involve making multiple sets in a relatively small area, but there are differences. Gang setting is a longer-term proposition, usually, while blitz trapping means pretty much what it means in war or football: Hitting a place hard with all you’ve got, but for a limited time period. The reason for doing both, of course, is to catch more furbearers.
When I ran my first trapline, exactly 50 years ago this month, I was the proud owner of 12 brand-new Victor single longsprings — to this day, the finest, most memorable Christmas present I’ve ever received. Those dozen traps constituted my entire trap inventory. Mine was a walking trapline along a grassy, brushy railroad right-of-way, and my quarry consisted of ’possums, cottontail rabbits and skunks. It wasn’t what you’d call a high-tech operation, and my tiny collection of steel kept me from making more than one set at any given location. It never occurred to me to do that in the first place. And I doubt I’d have done it even if I had thought of it. Doing so would have shortened that exquisite period of Christmas-morning anticipation that comes from the daily check of a trapline.
As the seasons passed and I accumulated more hardware, my traplines gradually expanded. But still I was a “one riot, one Ranger” type of trapper. It wasn’t until I started trapping muskrats that I figured out the value of making more than one set at a location. Actually, blitz trapping is usually better for muskrats than gang setting, but of course, I didn’t know that then.
Gang setting is useful for several reasons. First, naturally, is the biological fact that many furbearers travel in pairs or family groups — or just in groups, period, regardless of whether they’re related or not. Bobcats, red and gray foxes, raccoons, coyotes, otters and other species commonly travel together — in pairs or more. Except in those freak instances when two critters manage to get caught in the same trap, gang setting is the only way to take advantage of this habit of communal travel.
Another reason gang setting improves catches is because even when your target species is normally a solitary traveler (mink, for example), there’s a good possibility that more than one individual of that species might come through during the night. If you make one set and catch a target animal, well, hooray. But what about that second one that comes through when the trap is already full?
And what about non-target catches, both desirable and undesirable? If a ’possum or skunk finds your solitary fox set before the fox shows up, you’re not going to catch the fox at that location. Not that night, at any rate.
Gang setting, as was mentioned earlier, is the proper technique for trapping when you’re planning to be at a set location for a reasonable period of time. Blitz trapping, on the other hand, is most often a method used when, for whatever reason, you’re going to be unable to leave traps in a location for more than a night or two. Such as when you come into a new area with only two days left in the trapping season, or if you only have weekends to trap and you have to pull all your sets after only one or two nights.
Blitz trapping is gang setting on steroids. When you blitz-trap an area, the objective is to super-saturate it with a wide variety of sets, so that any and all furbearers that come through will have an excellent chance of getting caught. Blind sets, snares, bodygrippers, foot-holds, baited sets, lured sets, scent post sets, cage traps and buckets might all be employed in one tight location during a blitzing session. It’s overkill, basically, but it’s a short-term thing and it’s a very effective method of extracting the largest possible catch from a location within a brief window of opportunity.
One other time blitzing a set location can be the right move is when your target animal at that location is greatly outnumbered by non-target animals that are still desirable. This is often the case for mink trappers, for instance. Raccoons, muskrats and other critters outnumber mink several times over in most parts of the country. Sometimes a night or two of blitz trapping can knock back the numbers of those animals, after which time you can pull the excess sets and leave the two or three best mink sets at that location.
But just what’s involved in putting these two multiple-set strategies to work? When have you made enough sets at a gang set location? How do you know when to stop making sets when you’re blitzing a place? Umm… Well, would you believe you never do really know when you’ve got it done just right?
As with virtually every other aspect of trapping, gang setting and blitzing are both highly subjective. The answer varies, based on weather, furbearer density, what species are available at the location, the trapper’s level of expertise and experience, the stage of the trapping season, how many traps the trapper has in his inventory, how much time the trapper has for tending his trapline, and many other factors — not the least of which is the gut feeling the trapper has about the place.
With all those things being said, though, there are still some broad general guidelines. You want to use enough traps, certainly, and it’s better to make too many sets than to not make enough. But just as certainly, it’s counter-productive to use too many more than you really need.
Obviously, gang setting requires at least two sets. And often, that’s plenty. If I’m trapping for upland predators, in most cases, I make two sets at a location, using different attractors at each and setting on opposite sides of the main travelway to make sure I’m playing the wind properly. I almost always use my favorite lure at the set on the prevailing-wind side of the travelway and one of several “change-up” lures at the set I figure will be on the downwind side.
I don’t often use bait for upland trapping with footholds. I know a lot of other veteran trappers who disagree with me on this, but I’m almost strictly a lure man when it comes to upland predators. There are two reasons I feel this way. First, ’cats and canines have excellent noses — canines more than ’cats, of course, but ’cats smell well, too. And they all communicate by scent in one form or other — urine, feces, gland secretions, etc. Therefore, ’cats and canines are almost always interested in investigating a set made with a good gland lure and a squirt of urine on the backing, whether they happen to be hungry or not. Second, I feel that using bait greatly increases a set’s attraction to less desirable catches such as raccoons, ’possums and skunks.
However, if there’s a high incidence of those secondary critters in the area, I’ll often punch in a third set, and sometimes even a fourth one. I usually violate my own rule and use bait — beaver meat, jack mackerel, persimmons, sardines, something like that — at these sets. My intent here is to attract these less desirable critters to the baited sets, in the hope of keeping the two primary sets open and waiting for target animals.
If I’m using buckets or bodygrippers in trail sets for ’coons, it’s usually a two-trap setup, to take advantage of the communal traveling habits of these animals.
Mink, beaver, raccoons and otters lend themselves to gang setting for reasons already discussed — ’coons and otters travel in groups, beavers live in colonies and though mink are solitary, several of them usually inhabit the same territory. Throw in the distinct possibility of catching muskrats and ’possums in some of your sets, and it becomes obvious that gang setting is the way to go.
For ’coons, I’ll usually make at least one baited or lured set and at least one blind set at each stop. The blind set is almost always either a foothold set on a drowner at the edge of the water, or a #160 bodygripper in a trail through heavy vegetation. The lured or baited set will be a bucket guarded by a #160. In places where buckets aren’t a good idea, I’ll make some version of a pocket set at the water’s edge, again using a foothold on a drowning rig. If ’coon traffic is especially heavy, I might make two blind sets and two lured/baited sets, but rarely more than that.
When I’m setting for mink, I like at least two sets at a stop and usually three or four. I try to cover both sides of a stream and my goal is to cover both the high and low travelways on each side, using a combination of blind sets with footholds (usually in the edge of the water), blind sets with bodygrippers (usually on the high bank travelways), and pocket-type sets with footholds, using gland mink lure in some and no lure or bait at all in others. Again, many high-numbers mink trappers disagree with me, but I almost never use bait for mink.
My gang set groupings for beaver almost always include at least one castor mound set, a snare or two on bank slides and a #280 or #330 bodygripper or two set in underwater runs. My gang sets for otter are all over the board: Lured foothold sets on toilet or loafing stations, snares or bodygrippers in slides and runways, underwater swim-through sets with #220s or #280s, whatever suits the situation. But always with a minimum of three sets. Otters are unpredictable in their travels and it’s important to have multiple opportunities to catch them when they do come through because they may never be back.
Blitz trapping is rarely appropriate for upland trapping, because predator populations are seldom dense enough for this strategy to be effective. It might work in some specialized situations such as trapping coyotes that are causing problems with livestock or where lots of predators are coming to a big winter kill or a carcass dump. But, generally speaking, the standard gang setting techniques covered above are sufficient.
Muskrats are the primary species that lend themselves to blitzing techniques. In a good chunk of muskrat territory, it’s almost impossible to make too many sets, but it sure is possible to leave them in place for too long. If you set heavily enough, three days is plenty of time to trap an area for muskrats. After that, it’s usually best to pull out of that area and blitz somewhere else.
Blitz trapping is also effective for longline trapping for water critters. If you’re mink trapping, it’s often advisable to hit a new trapline stop extra heavy for a few checks to knock the top off the ’coon, muskrat and ’possum population. Then, when these critters are thinned out, you can drop back to three or four good mink sets and have a reasonable expectation of them remaining open and ready for when the mink come through.
Just because you have multiple sets at a location, don’t use that as an excuse to get sloppy with your set making. Two Rangers might be better than one when it comes to quelling a riot, but two sloppy sets are not as good as one good one when it comes to capturing furbearers. Make every set like it’s the only one you have and you’ll have a lot more to smile about at the fur sale.
Of course, there’s an upper limit to the effectiveness of both gang setting and blitz trapping. It’s entirely possible to get carried away and set way too many traps at a location, especially when sign is abundant. I know. I’ve done it. I’ll do it again, too. My trapping partner and I don’t call ourselves “Overkill, Incorporated” for nothing.
But if you keep feathering the brakes on your enthusiasm and don’t get all ridiculous about throwing steel around in every direction, gang setting and blitz trapping will serve you well.
Jim Spencer is executive editor of Trapper & Predator Caller.