Plentiful in number with high-value pelts, simple sets for marten will fatten your fur check.
By David O’Farrell
e most productive marten set I’ve ever seen produced 17 marten in 14 days. No it wasn’t mine. My two daughters were the lucky owners. They borrowed one of my marten boxes and nailed it to an old rotting stump not far from the cabin. I swear, that set was like the goose that laid the golden egg. It got to be so ridiculous they started checking it twice a day. Three different times they pulled two martens a day off that old stump, too.
I studied that location a lot that winter trying to figure out what made it so productive. I’m not sure I ever figured it out. There did seem to be a concentrated population of both snowshoe hares and lemmings near the set.Marten prey on both species so it stands to reason they would seek these areas out.
Marten are the most sought after furbearer in the north. They are easy to catch, prolific, and usually bring good prices at the auction house. Like some other furbearers, marten populations will cycle. Not much is known about this cycle, although it likely relates to food sources. Marten prey on a variety of species. Voles, bog lemmings, mice, and snowshoe hares are just a few. I usually dissect a few marten carcasses each season. This practice has convinced me they are opportunistic hunters that will cache food. Stomach contents have included berries, mice, rabbit’s, voles and even eggshells.
Marten mate from July through late August. They have what is called “delayed implantation.” This means that fertilized eggs are not implanted in the uterus right away. This ensures the young are born at a time with the best chance of survival in March and April. Kits stay in the den for up to six weeks. During this time, they are dependent on the mother. Juveniles disperse in late fall or early winter. During this time, they will attempt to establish their own territories. Only a few will survive. These dispersing juveniles are the target population of many marten trappers.
Deadfalls were popular among northern trappers well into the middle of the 20th century. As a matter of fact, remnants of these old traps are still visible today. A few years ago I went to help a fellow trapper re-roof his cabin. He traps in the Liard Basin in northwest Canada, an area famous for its rich trapping history. Decaying deadfalls were still visible along the old trails that run through the area. The time and work those old timers put into those traps is humbling. It also gives “set-location,” a new meaning. You wouldn’t want to build one in a location that didn’t produce.
Once steel traps became available, marten trapping changed forever. Trappers now had the ability to make sets anywhere. Single long-springs quickly became the favored marten trap. Footholds were eliminated under the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards for Canadian trappers. They are, however, still used by a lot of American marten trappers.
When I first started trapping I was lucky to have a few older Cree trappers around for advice. Even luckier still was the fact that one of them, George Cryingman, decided to take me under his wing. George was famous in the small northern British Columbia community where I grew up. He never had a driver’s license or an outside job. He earned his living the old way: trapping. His specialty was lynx and marten.
George was a product of the deadfall era, and to him, footholds were a huge improvement. He preferred Victor 1-1/2 long-spring traps for marten. Since he ran his trapline on snowshoes, weight was a big factor in this decision. A frozen marten can easily be removed from a foothold without damaging the fur. This meant George didn’t have to carry extra traps.
The Cree trappers I grew up around didn’t bait their marten sets the way modern trappers do now. Their preferred bait was a small piece of green moose hide. They would tack a piece of this hide, hair side out, right above the trap. The tough piece of hide attracted marten, and lasted a long time. A few drops of lure, dropped into the fur every time they came by, kept the set fresh.
The short running pole set was popular among those old timers. A pole about three feet long and six to eight inches in diameter is selected. One end is cut square, and the other is cut at a 45-degree angle. The pole is then leaned up against a tree. The trap sits on the 45-degree cut with the bait tacked just above it. The trap was stapled to the tree and would stay there throughout the year.
Cubbies were another set favored by early trappers. The fact that lynx, fox, and other similar sized furbearers could be taken at a marten set was a bonus. The problem was fur damage. Marten have delicate fur that is easily damaged. Left on the ground they are susceptible to mice and squirrels. Swing poles designed to lift the marten off the ground, helped end this problem.
By the late 1950s, bodygrip traps were beginning to catch on. Inventor Frank Conibear had most of the bugs worked out by this time, and trappers liked what they saw. Shortly after its invention, the bodygrip, became the trap of choice for most marten trappers. Trappers quickly realized that they could target certain species with the new traps. This appealed to marten trappers because they could almost eliminate taking unwanted species.
The most efficient way to use bodygrips for marten is in a box. Boxes are usually elevated. The most common method is to secure them to trees, stumps, or leaning poles. Some trappers prefer to secure their boxes permanently to a tree in a horizontal position.
Permanent horizontal boxes have some distinct advantages over other sets. Once the boxes are installed, carting around a bunch of bulky boxes is no longer necessary. Baiting is easier as well. Since the box is horizontal there is no need to wire in the bait. While there are advantages to the permanent box set, there are disadvantages too. In open windy areas snow can build up inside the box rendering the set ineffective. Deep snow can create problems as well. A box that has been mounted four feet off the ground early in the season might be too low by midwinter.
Marten boxes mounted vertically with the opening facing down are another popular set. Studies have shown that this set produces a high percentage of good trap strikes. The box is usually hung from a nail or small branch about three feet off the ground. One wire on the trigger is left straight and the other is bent into an L shape. Cameras have shown that marten will usually grab the L in the trigger to pull themselves into the box. This ensures an almost perfect strike every time. I used this set a lot in the past and have found I get fewer refusals with it than any other. The drawback is baiting. Because the box is upside down the bait must be wired inside the box. This takes time. Pre-baiting boxes that will be used in this fashion is a good idea and will save time out on the trapline.
A few years ago I tried a few of the new plastic boxes on leaning pole sets. I liked them so well I began switching all my marten sets over to this style. Building a leaning pole set takes a bit of time, but I feel it’s worth the effort. Because I trap in deep snow country, I prefer a pole about 10-12-feet long, six to eight inches in diameter. Once the pole is cut and de-limbed I fasten the big end to another tree. I try to keep the high end about five feet off the ground. A short piece of lathe nailed on top of the pole makes mounting the box fast and easy. The plastic boxes are thin enough that the lip of the box can be slid between the lathe and the pole. This holds them firmly in place, yet makes removing them a breeze. No screws, nails, or wire to remove.
It has taken a lot of work and a sizable investment to switch my marten line over to the leaning pole set. Plastic boxes are expensive, and the set takes time to build. A few years in now, and I feel the investment has been worth it. Squirrels don’t chew the plastic boxes, and the set has proven very easy to maintain. Since the boxes are on an angle snow doesn’t build up inside, and the pole gives marten easy access to the set.
I think I’ve found the perfect set for the country I trap. I am still looking for that perfect location, though. You know, the one that will produce marten like the goose that laid the golden egg. I will likely never find it. But I’m going to have fun trying.